Mont­gomery school dis­trict’s ‘in­fa­mous data­base’ scrapped

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY DONNA ST. GE­ORGE

Two years af­ter school of­fi­cials cre­ated a data­base to track al­le­ga­tions of in­ap­pro­pri­ate em­ployee con­duct to­ward stu­dents, Mont­gomery County is dis­man­tling the pro­ject, which one of­fi­cial said crit­ics came to see as the “in­fa­mous data­base.”

The data­base — which at one point had more than 200 en­tries, dozens of which were re­lated to al­le­ga­tions of in­ap­pro­pri­ate sex­ual con­duct— was in­tended to be used to track pat­terns and iden­tify po­ten­tial prob­lems as they de­vel­oped. But it also re­ceived crit­i­cism be­cause not all of the cases were re­ported to county author­i­ties for pos­si­ble in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The de­ci­sion to take down the data­base comes amid a broader ef­fort to over­haul how Mary­land’s largest school sys­tem han­dles in­ci­dents of al­leged sex­ual mis­con­duct; last week, school lead­ers

adopted a new child abuse pol­icy.

Josh Civin, the school sys­tem’s gen­eral coun­sel, said the data­base is be­ing scrapped as the school sys­tem seeks to em­pha­size that all cases of sus­pected abuse be re­ported to Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices.

“We want to make it clear we’re erring on the side of re­port­ing so that be­hav­ior that cre­ates a sus­pi­cion will be shared with CPS,” he said.

In the past, some of the al­le­ga­tions tracked in the data­base were re­ported to CPS, and some were not, Civin said. The in­ci­dents that went un­re­ported were con­sid­ered to have fallen short of sus­pected abuse, he said.

The records in­cluded in the data­base are un­der re­view as part of a larger ex­am­i­na­tion of school files, be­ing done with the as­sis­tance of an out­side lawyer, he said.

“We’re go­ing to look through them and make sure we un­der­stand what’s in those records and we keep track of those in­ci­dents go­ing for­ward as well,” Civin said.

School of­fi­cials could not say how many cases were be­ing tracked in the data­base as of late last week. In Novem­ber, school of­fi­cials told The Washington Post that there were 222 en­tries in the data­base— dat­ing to 2004— 82 of which in­volved al­le­ga­tions of in­ap­pro­pri­ate sex­ual con­duct.

The data­base was launched in sum­mer 2013 fol­low­ing sev­eral cases that raised con­cern, in­clud­ing the ar­rest of teacher Lawrence Joynes, a 27-year vet­eran of the school sys­tem who was charged in the sex­ual abuse of 15 girls, most of them in kinder­garten to sec­ond grade at New Hamp­shire Es­tates Ele­men­tary School. He pleaded guilty in May.

Af­ter the al­le­ga­tions of abuse against Joynes sur­faced, par­ents and teach­ers ques­tioned why school of­fi­cials had not bet­ter tracked com­plaints about him, spot­ting pat­terns or red flags. Joynes was ar­rested af­ter a fed­eral probe of a child pornog­ra­phy ring, not as a re­sult of school ac­tions.

The data­base of in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­duct came as one of sev­eral mea­sures taken to im­prove mon­i­tor­ing for po­ten­tial in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­duct in­schools. School of­fi­cials said at the time the data­base would cre­ate a more ro­bust cen­tral­ized track­ing method. It was seen as a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment.

But ad­vo­cates have been crit­i­cal of the data­base be­cause not all of the in­ci­dents or al­le­ga­tions it con­tained were re­ported to author­i­ties.

Ellen Mug­mon, a long­time ad­vo­cate on child abuse is­sues who has served with state and na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions, re­cently sub­mit­ted com­ments to the Mont­gomery County school board that re­ferred to the pro­ject as a “se­cret files” sys­tem that was vi­o­lat­ing abuse re­port­ing laws.

As the data­base is dis­man­tled, she said, school of­fi­cials should re­port to CPS and po­lice any in­ci­dents that have not al­ready been re­ported for in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “If there’s noth­ing there, there’s noth­ing there, but leave it to the ex­perts to de­cide,” she said. “This is se­ri­ous.”

The dis­trict’s new pol­icy, ap­proved Mon­day, stresses re­port­ing sus­pi­cions of abuse even when there is doubt about what hap­pened, with CPS in­ves­ti­gat­ing the va­lid­ity of con­cerns, not school staff. It calls for em­ployee train­ing, screen­ing pro­cesses and a con­duct code.

But some have asked about the is­sue of track­ing con­duct that seems in­no­cent but might raise con­cerns if it were re­peated fre­quently.

“Maybe if you have 20 in­ci­dents, maybe at some point it looks like it isn’t so in­no­cent any­more,” Phil Kauffman, chair­man of the school board’s pol­icy man­age­ment com­mit­tee, said in a re­cent com­mit­tee dis­cus­sion dur­ing which he sug­gested some view the sys­tem as the “in­fa­mous data­base.”

Kauffman said in an in­ter­view that some crit­ics de­vel­oped an im­pres­sion that the data­base was a sys­tem for track­ing em­ploy­ees sus­pected of child abuse, a view he does not share. He said un­der the new pol­icy, ques­tion­able be­hav­iors will be re­ported to CPS.

Jen­nifer Al­varo, a par­ent and ad­vo­cate on sex abuse preven­tion who is a mem­ber of a dis­trictcre­ated ad­vi­sory group on child abuse, said the data­base al­ways has been prob­lem­atic be­cause it in­cluded in­ci­dents that had not been re­ported to author­i­ties.

But she said the school dis­trict needs some type of sys­tem to cap­ture con­duct that is re­peated or fol­lows a pat­tern be­cause in­ci­dents re­ported to CPS or po­lice will not al­ways rise to the level of be­ing in­ves­ti­gated or pur­sued crim­i­nally.

“Those re­ports and con­cerns need to be tracked some­where,” she said.

Civin, the dis­trict’s gen­eral coun­sel, said that such in­ci­dents will be tracked through con­fi­den­tial in­ves­tiga­tive files that are main­tained elec­tron­i­cally and will re­side in a unit within the school sys­tem’s hu­man re­sources depart­ment.

He also said that re­gard­less of what CPS and po­lice do with al­le­ga­tions, the dis­trict will in­ves­ti­gate whether em­ploy­ees com­plied with ed­u­ca­tion law and school sys­tem poli­cies.

Al­varo said a big ques­tion re­mains about how the school sys­tem will track vi­o­la­tions of its new em­ployee con­duct code, not yet com­pleted. She said she also wants to know more about the new sys­tem of in­ves­tiga­tive files; she said she never got com­plete an­swers about the data­base.

“I’ve al­ways ques­tioned what was in the data­base, who was run­ning the data­base, who knew about it and who had ac­cess,” she said.

“We want to make it clear we’re erring on the side of re­port­ing so that be­hav­ior that cre­ates a sus­pi­cion will be shared with [Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices].”

Josh Civin, Mont­gomery County Public Schools gen­eral coun­sel

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