by Alana Cole-Faber
In August of 2014, my children began school at Dora Kennedy French Immersion School (formerly Robert Goddard), one of PGCPS’s Specialty Schools. Having completed a successful year of preschool, our children were so excited to finally be attending “real school” with the big kids. We felt incredibly fortunate that we had won the lottery and that our children would have the privilege of attending a National Blue Ribbon school. We have moved a lot as a family, and as parents we were looking forward to settling down in Prince George’s County and getting to know our new community, the teachers, parents, and the school system in general. Instead, we have spent a large portion of the last year dealing with an appalling problem.
In October 2014, our children came home and told us that my son had been spanked at Dora Kennedy French Immersion School. We were stunned. We immediately separated and interviewed our children to find out what had happened and to be sure all of the details of their stories matched up. The children told us that my son had been jumping up and down while the class was singing, so the teacher asked the class to tell her which child had misbehaved and deserved to be punished. The majority of students pointed to my son, so he was called to the front of the class and struck until he cried. I asked my daughter if she thought our son had been hit hard, and my daughter said, “The teacher hit him hard, but she hits another boy even harder.”
My children then went on to name three other children who had been struck by their teacher during the year. (Corporal punishment is illegal in public schools in Maryland. Even so, it is worth noting that we had never received so much as a note home from this teacher to say that our son had misbehaved in class.)
The next morning, we went to the school to report the abuse. We spoke to a supervisory staff member at the school first. The supervisor listened to our story, then left to remove the teacher from the classroom and sent in a security officer to take our written statement. It was explained to us that any time there are allegations of abuse or harassment, a written report is sent to the county for investigation. It was also explained to us that this teacher would not be left alone with students during the investigation. We wrote a written report, including the names of the other children who had been struck. We also asked that our children be moved to other classrooms, just in case the teacher were allowed to return to the classroom following the investigation.
Though the supervisor was unable to locate the principal during the time we were on campus, the principal called later that evening and confirmed that the teacher had admitted to the spankings. The principal apologized and seemed to understand the seriousness of the issue. We concluded a very stressful day believing the school had the matter under control and would be taking action.
Fast forward to spring of 2015. Our daughter tells us that her former teacher, the one who hit our son, came into my daughter’s new classroom and threatened to “beat” the children in there. At least three other children also reported the threat to their parents. My daughter said there was no other adult present at the time, and we realized that this teacher was being left alone with students. Another parent told us that her daughter had witnessed spankings as recently as April of 2015. This child also said no other teacher was present in the classroom. Then another parent came forward. And then another. All of these parents told us they had tried to complain to the administration and had their concerns dismissed, with the administration referring to one parent as a “liar” and another as a “trouble maker.” One parent had complained two years before our children even entered the school.
When we began reaching out to other parents, we discovered that the school had not contacted any of the other parents whose children were named in our report as having been spanked. It was at this point that we realized something had gone wrong, and we contacted the CEO and our Board of Education representative to find out if they knew anything about the status of our case. It seemed unconscionable to us that the teacher would have been allowed to remain in the classroom, unsupervised, threatening and hitting students. Our case was then forwarded to PGCPS Security Services, and it was at that point that we learned that the principal had done nothing with our report of abuse. (Note that educators have a legal duty in Maryland to report suspected abuse.) Security Services interviewed us and assured us that an investigation would now be taking place into both the spanking and the school’s handling of our report. We have not heard anything from them since but have been told by the Department of Employee and Labor Relations that the investigation has been completed. We know from speaking to several parents that this investigation was concluded without interviewing all affected parties. We have also contacted Child Protective Services and PG County Police to no avail.
Though we know nothing about the outcome of this investigation, we have been informed by a PGCPS administrator of several important pieces of information: 1) The principal was unaware that educators/administrators are mandated reporters or that the report should have been passed on to the county. 2) The principal claims we asked him not to take any action against the teacher. 3) Other parents “paint a different picture” of what went on in the classroom, although when asked if that picture did not involve corporal punishment, the administrator refused to clarify. 4) Parents are not entitled to know the outcome of an investigation of abuse involving their own children.
These responses have raised numerous questions. First of all, why would PGCPS put a principal in place who has not been trained in regards to legal obligations, abuse prevention, and PGCPS protocol? As parents, we know that corporal punishment is not a part of the discipline plan published by PGCPS, we know that the law mandates that educators/administrators report any suspected abuse, and we also know that PGCPS administrative procedures require such incidents to be reported. The supervisor we spoke with at the school last October seemed to know exactly what should be done. How is it possible that the principal did not? What sort of training is the county providing for principals?
Secondly, the claim that we asked the principal to do nothing about our report is absurd. We would not have written a report if we did not want action to be taken. However, let us say for the sake of argument that we did say we did not want anything to happen to the teacher who struck our son. Why would a parent be permitted to dictate when a PGCPS principal follows the law? What other incidents have gone unreported, then, because someone asked the principal not to take action? How many more times was a child struck or emotionally abused during the course of the year because of the principal’s inaction?
Third, when the administrator told us that other parents had been contacted, we immediately got in touch with some of the parents whose children had witnessed spankings and threats. Somehow, PGCPS had failed to contact them. And those were only the parents we know personally. There are surely others out there that we do not know. If this is how PGCPS conducts investigations, then they are missing quite a lot of important information. Finally, it is appalling to me that, as parents, we have no right to any information regarding what happened in our children’s school and what the administration did to correct it.
Although the teacher in question left Dora Kennedy following graduation last June, she is still teaching young children in another public school district. The principal who failed to report the abuse is still in charge. Nothing has changed in terms of providing support for parents and children who have experienced abuse within the school. This year, we heard concerns from other parents regarding another teacher’s discipline methods, and we and a handful of other parents made the decision to remove our children from the school. While those of us who have managed to get our children out are relieved, we cannot help but worry about the children who are left behind. We know there are many good people at that school who care deeply about the children entrusted to their care; however, we remain extremely concerned about the oversight of this school and the lack of protection in place within PGCPS for children and families. Rather than finding support and help through the school system, we have had to fight our way through on our own, and the path to follow is unclear and frequently obstructed.
We believe public school can and should do better, and it is important to us to do everything we can to advocate for improvements that will make our school system better and more effective. We believe families whose children experience abuse within the school system need support. We aim to build an alliance of parents and citizens who will work with us to provide that support and help ensure that all reports of abuse within the school system are taken seriously so that our public schools can be safe havens of learning for our community’s children.
If you are a parent whose child has experienced abuse within the school system and needs support, or if you are a concerned citizen who wants to help, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on what we have learned and what steps we would recommend for other parents whose children have experienced abuse at school, stay tuned to PGCABS.org for a follow-up post.