Some students and parents believe that Montgomery County Public Schools has fallen short of upholding its responsibilities with the inadequate handling of sexual assault and child abuse cases.
In October 1993, elementary school teacher Daniel Picca received an official reprimand from his supervisors regarding his inappropriate conduct with his male students. According to the Maryland State Board of Education, this marked the first of a long series of transgressions occurring over Picca’s 17-year employment with MCPS. He garnered seven unequivocal written disciplines from his employers and was warned by three different elementary school principals, as well as former superintendents Paul Vance and Jerry Weast, to stop feeling boys’ biceps and shoulders, stop asking them to take their shirts off, and stop forcing them to sit in his lap. He continued to be transferred from one elementary school to another – including Kemp Mill, Candlewood, Rachel Carson, and Luxmanor – where the same incidents would be repeated time and time again, until May 2011 when the school board finally fired him. As allegations against Picca came to light, the State Board urged MCPS to revisit its policies on the topic of staff conduct toward students.
“When confronted with such obvious inappropriate behaviors on the part of a teacher toward his students, it is our expectation and, we believe, the expectation of the school community, that the teacher will be removed from contact with students with alacrity,” a statement from the State Board said. “Yet this teacher [Picca] was transferred to different elementary schools and remained in the classroom. That should never have occurred.”
Years later, the same issues remain prevalent. On October 14, 2014, substitute teacher Jose Pineda was arrested after being accused of inappropriately touching a student at Roberto Clemente Middle School. MCPS withheld information from the community until 38 days after the incident and 25 days after Pineda’s arrest, spurring outrage from parents across the county.
Roberto Clemente Principal Khadija Barkley apologized to parents in a letter dated November 7, citing concerns for interrupting the ongoing investigation as her reason for failing to provide timely information. Her response did little to appease the community. “I am not happy,” Clemente parent Darren Basore told the Germantown Pulse. “It appears the school is hiding something. The school waited entirely too long; we should have been notified the day the teacher was arrested.”
In the days preceding Pineda’s arrest, MCPS came forward with shocking news of the arrest of a school contractor who had been charged for sexual abuse at Baker Middle School three weeks prior. The community was dismayed at the delay in information and began galvanizing the school board for change.
According to a school system spokesperson, MCPS is planning to review and revise the way they notify parents of serious incidents at schools to ensure that information is released in a timely fashion. Dr. Starr convened a meeting with all of the principals in the county in November. “We should have informed the community earlier about these events, but we made a mistake and did not,” MCPS communication specialist Gboyinde Onijala said. “We will review our procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not happen again.”
Since last December, MCPS has held a training session for principals, teaching them how to properly report and handle cases of sexual abuse in school. As an extra precaution, the school system has designed a database that tracks employees and contractors who have had allegations leveled against them in the past, even if the accusations were never fully investigated. Then-Superintendent Joshua Starr also assembled a group consisting of MCPS staff, parents, police and members of the Montgomery County State’s Attorney Office to monitor the school system’s treatment of future incidents.
On February 2, the County Council’s Education Committee held a meeting specifically to discuss the school system’s delay in reporting past sexual assault cases. Committee Chairman Craig Rice announced his plans to conduct a thorough analysis of how schools mishandled certain situations. “All of us were extremely shocked and disappointed by the lack of follow-through at a few of our schools,” Rice said. “There’s no doubt mistakes were made. There has to be a set policy when it comes to these things.”
Despite measures taken by the school system, parents are still concerned that there is not an adequate prevention and education program in the county. Susan Burkinshaw, a Northwest High School parent, has been extremely active in the fight to ensure students’ safety. “Many MCPS employees have not been screened for criminal background checks, finger printing, or child protective services screening,” Burkinshaw noted. “Also, training for MCPS staff has been inconsistent historically, bordering on violating the law. Teachers are mandated to report suspicions of child sex abuse to child protective services or police. In many cases, many reports were made to MCPS administrators [instead].”
After 21 employee arrests since 1999, MCPS is trying to take decisive action regarding its abuse-reporting protocol. “My top priority is the health and wellness of our students,” Dr. Starr expressed before stepping down as superintendent. “This includes ensuring that any allegation of suspicion of child abuse is handled appropriately and thoroughly. In my three and a half years as superintendent of Montgomery Country Schools, I have seen our schools and offices handle these matters appropriately. A vast majority of the time we get it right. However, recent incidents lead me to believe there is more we can do to improve our policies and procedures.”
Article by MoCo Student staff writer Catherine Yang of Wootton High School
Image from Montgomery County Public Schools