School task force releases findings, recommendations
Addresses steps to take to keep children safe
In response to the safety concerns pertaining to the ongoing criminal investigation of alleged child sexual abuse abuse at Judge Sylvania Woods Elementary School, Prince George’s County Public Schools, the PGCPS Student Safety Task Force and the Prince George’s Board of Education held a joint press conference on May 31 to release the task force’s findings and recommendations regarding the school district’s practices. The conference was held at the Sasscer Administration Building in Upper Marlboro.
Established earlier this year by school CEO Kevin Maxwell, the task force — comprised of representatives from colleges and universities as well as the non-profit, private, local government and public safety sectors — was convened to ensure that the school system undertakes an independent review of its current policies, procedures, processes and practices designed to safeguard and protect students. Within 60 days of its convening, the task force was required to make recommendations that substantiate and enhance the use of best practices to proactively safeguard children from harm, according to the PGCPS website.
“They met extensively beyond their workdays, they made themselves available by phone on the weekend, all in the service to our school system, our parents and most importantly, to our children,” Maxwell said in his introductory remarks as he stood at the podium in the center of the board room. “Earlier this year when I established the task force, it was done for three key reasons. Since day one, I have been committed to enacting real and substantive change regarding student safety and education in Prince George’s County. [Number two,] our children deserve this commitment. As an educator and life-long member of this community, ensuring that our children receive a quality education in a safe environment is personal to me. As CEO, I take my responsibility to our children very seriously and this is indeed a serious matter.”
When the task force was commissioned, Chairwoman Charlene M. Dukes said Maxwell set no boundaries or limits on what and where the members could examine and the recommendations they could ultimately put forward. She said Maxwell was clear in his expectations that the task force could and would have access to whom and what was necessary to complete the charge, according to a school system press release.
The task force conducted confidential interviews with a wide range of school personnel to assess student safety and how it might be improved. Over the last three months, the members met a minimum of 30 times, with more than 500 hours dedicated to completing its work, Dukes said.
“With the establishment of the task force, I was determined to have an independent and thorough review not only of our policies and procedures, but also our training, our hiring practices and our curriculum,” Maxwell said. “I was determined by a neutral but forward-thinking lens how we might improve upon our efforts to protect our children from harm while providing them with a quality education. And that is just exactly what this report being released today, by Dr. Dukes, will help us to do.”
The task force work included a survey of stakeholders, targeted inter- views, a review of best practices and an analysis of policies and procedures now in place with an eye toward impactful changes. As part of its work, the task force also distributed a survey to parents, staff, students and the community to solicit their input including asking for their perceptions, opinions and beliefs about the four key areas; soliciting comments with regard to what the public thought to be strengths and weaknesses; and finally, what recommendations they might provide. About 405 individuals responded to the survey and gave the task force over 2,800 responses to the questions asked, according to the press release.
“As president of Prince George’s Community College, what I do know is firsthand how important the safety and well-being of our students is,” Dukes said. “It is the responsibility of adults to protect children from harm and that is the underlying theme in this report. It is inextricably woven throughout the five major recommendations, the 61 considerations and the 28 suggestions contained within the report.”
According to the press release, the task force offers five major recommen- dations based on reporting procedures, accountability, oversight, universal precautions and curriculum, as a starting point for PGCPS.
Recommendation one is the CEO should report publicly each year on system-wide efforts related to student safety. Recommendation two insists the CEO should ensure that each principal conducts safety assessment and uses the results to develop and implement comprehensive strategies. Recommendation three states the CEO should establish an Office of Monitoring, Accountability and Compliance with direct reporting to the CEO wherein the office will assume responsibility for assuring implementation of procedures associated with policies approved by the board of education, assure fidelity in training, awareness of individual responsibility to report to whom by when, and compliance. Recommendation four is the school system should develop and implement a universal precaution approach to screening and training of employees, volunteers, vendors and contractors, to include a searchable database for rapid identification of red flags. Recommendation five asks the school system to update the K-12 curricular content focused on preventing child sexual abuse that is developmentally age appropriate while engaging parents and guardians, and meets evidence-based criteria for effectiveness in mitigating instances of child sexual abuse.
“I speak for the entire task force when I say that we are ready to support Dr. Maxwell and the board of education as they worked collaboratively and swiftly to implement any and all of the recommendations laid out,” Dukes said. “Their work, our work, the work of the Prince George’s County Public Schools and the work of our community atlarge we believe is just beginning.”
In response to the task force’s recommendations, Maxwell said he will establish a new Office of Monitoring, Accountability and Compliance, as well as convene a workgroup of high-level school system administrators to review and implement all or most of the 61 considerations and 28 opportunities to update, clarify and/or enhance administrative procedures within four key areas — culture and climate; reporting and training; screening of employees; volunteers, vendors and contractors; and curriculum and counseling, according to the press release.
In addition, Maxwell has concurred with the recommendations regarding yearly public reporting procedures, accountability for training; an update of the system’s curricular content on preventing and teaching about child sexual abuse, pre K-12, in a developmentally age-appropriate manner; and the development and implementation of a universal precautions approach to screening and training to ensure that all individuals, who come in contact with children in PGCPS schools on a regular basis, must be trained, screened and approved before that contact is permitted. That approach will include a searchable database for rapid identification of red flags in consultation with outside experts in the field.
“We are still carefully and thoroughly reviewing the findings of the report and will make additional changes to our practices as we move forward. However, based on what we have been able to review and analyze, I have already instructed my staff to immediately begin implementing many of the recommendations,” Maxwell said.