“Every single one of the members of this board of education were deeply disturbed by what we learned about what happened in the incidents of Head Start,” Eubanks said. “We respond to that in different ways. We address it in different ways. But make no mistake — each and every one of us on this board of education are deeply committed to making sure we get this issue right.”
In the board’s joint statement, Eubanks said the decision to relinquish the Head Start grant not only ensures that every one of the 900 plus students — who began school on Aug. 29 — would have uninterrupted services for the entire 2016-17 school year, but also ensures the program would continue with no loss in funding, he said.
“We’ve already been in communication with the Administration for Children and Families which shares our commitment to providing uninterrupted services to Head Start children and families,” Eubanks said. “We will collaborate with our partners in county government to negotiate an interim agreement … and to develop a long-term solution that ensures quality Head Start services for children and families in Prince George’s County for years to come. This is an important first step, but it is by no means, the end. We will continue to investigate the events that occurred and hold accountable the system and/or individuals who failed to protect our children. Most importantly, we must examine deeply our policies, our processes and our culture to gain the trust of our community.”
“This is on the heels of the Judge Sylvania Woods [Elementary School] situation [that involved alleged cases of child abuse and pornography] which now makes it impossible to trust this leadership,” said Tonya Wingfield, one of three residents who testified on issues surrounding the Head Start program. “I challenge the county executive, who is also a lawyer, sworn-in to uphold the law to act responsibly and demand the same. If things are to work, we will soon know, under the appropriate law enforcement agencies that have not initiated actions to show they understand the seriousness of these individuals’ actions, the [U.S.] Justice Department needs to begin an investigation.”
Being that Eubanks, Board Vice Chairwoman Carolyn Boston, Prince George’s County Public Schools CEO Kevin Maxwell and other top school officials had full knowledge of the issues uncovered by the federal government’s review of the Head Start program, Wingfield said the fact that they still have jobs sends the message that the lives of children in the county do not matter.
“The CEO, board chair and vice chair and the deputy superintendents of teaching and learning, and every deputy and staff member under them, had an obligation to do the right thing for those children once they saw that report,” Donna Young said. “Instead and for whatever reason, be a fear of losing their jobs or plain old uncaring nature, has aided in child abuse and should be removed from any access to our children. The county executive stated that he was not going to ask for the resignation of the CEO and board members as he had confidence in them and ended that statement with, ‘Our test scores have increased.’ … More appalling than the county executive’s statement and misleading guidance about our increased test scores is the inferences that the citizens of Prince George’s County are willing to trade and ignore the safety and well-being of our children.”
Young said the federal government’s decision to terminate federal funding for the Head Start program is a reflection of poor judgment and lack of compliance on behalf of school system officials.
“Until you consider the value of your employees and treat them with dignity and respect, this system will continue to fail in many ways,” said Shirley Kirkland, president of the Association of Classified Employees, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (ACE-AFSCME) Local 2250 Inc., based in Upper Marlboro. “Here we are, at the beginning of a new school year, already faced with negative publicity at the hands of administration and this board. To appease the public and media, threats are made to employees and carried out in the most immortalizing manner one could imagine.”
Kirkland, who spoke on behalf of the support system for the school district, said ACE-AFSCME fully supports taking immediate action when employees are found guilty of any abuse toward children. However, she raised concerned regarding abuse of those employees when they are summoned to an investigation.
“Members are being summoned to report to labor relations with no prior notice … only to find out that in an effort for administration to show the public and media, that their actions are to take these facts and use against the employee without any official process,” Kirkland said. “These summons are being carried out with no official notice to the member but a mere phone call. … We are set up for yet more liabilities by way of independent, wrongful termination lawsuits. … The Judge [Sylvania] Woods tragedy has created an unhealthy working environment for everyone in education who deals directly with our children. … Is it the meaning behind our core value that all staff share responsibility for safe and supportive school environments contributing to the excellence in education.”
When it comes to sharing responsibility for safe and supportive school environments, Burroughs proposed a motion to have federal officials and/or the state government come in and do an external investigation. That motion failed as some of his colleagues voted in opposition while others, who were unsure, abstained Burroughs’ motion.
“To see us lose funding for Head Start, which serves our most vulnerable and most needy students, is outrageous,” Burroughs said. “It makes no sense to me to have the school system investigate itself; that is absurd. I think the school system has already demonstrated an inability to be forthright and forthcoming with information. So to have that motion fail was very disheartening.”
Burroughs said the only way the school system will improve is if it breaks the culture of silence. It is important for the board to not only be overly transparent, but also expose everything they know. Otherwise, the problems won’t get fixed, he said.
“This is stressful and this is hurtful,” said Board Member Verjeana Jacobs, who voted in opposition of relinquishing federal funds for the program. “I think the way we move forward is the community has to hold us accountable. Accountability sometimes doesn’t feel great, but that’s what has to happen. … As an individual board member and a parent, I see my role as collaborating with parents and trying to help them be the best advocates.”