The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the positions or opinions of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.
by Justine C.
In response to the horrific incidents at Judge Sylvania Woods Elementary School and the resulting Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) Student Safety Task Force Final Report (completed May 2016), the PGCPS administration revised Administrative Procedure 5145 “Reporting Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect” in August 2016.
According to Dr. Kevin Maxwell in an email to me dated January 18, “added emphasis was placed on the training of all employees to ensure that as a district we are providing the safest possible atmosphere for all students.” Maxwell continued, “while the large number of reports that have been generated as a result of the renewed emphasis on training, could be viewed as an unintended consequence, it only takes one incident, to one child to demonstrate how important it is for us as a district to remain diligent in this area.”
It’s hard to argue with that.
But I believe that PGCPS needs to be honest that there has been a significant overcorrection and that this is negatively impacting classrooms and students across the county. In fact, it was reported at a public meeting with PGCPS officials hosted by our local PTA on February 1 that Child Protective Services (CPS) has told PGCPS that many reports are not abuse and are not even reportable offenses. I can attest to how disruptive the procedures changes have been.
During the fall and winter of this school year, one of my child’s teachers had to take an extended period of family leave. This resulted in the class having a number of different substitutes of varying temperaments and abilities. There was general confusion on a daily basis about whether or not there would even be a substitute for that day. The lack of continuous instruction meant very little material was covered. If a substitute did not pick up the job for the day, students in the affected class were given a packet of work and sent to sit in other classrooms. When a 9-year-old bemoans the fact that they aren’t learning any math, you know that there is a problem.
Just prior to the winter break, my other child’s teacher disappeared. After parent inquiries were made, it was discovered that the teacher had been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. Again, the students were subject to the vagaries of the substitute teaching pool. Other staff had to develop lesson plans based on the curriculum, grade papers, and input grades into School Max, in addition to their regular duties. And once again, students recognized that the worksheets they were doing were in no way equal to the exciting projects, lessons, and differentiated instruction they had previously enjoyed.
How did this situation evolve?
While I am still somewhat murky on the details of how reports regarding child abuse are made and what the county considers to be abuse, it is clear that these investigations take a significant amount of time due to the sheer number of offices involved. A report goes directly to CPS, who must investigate and give their findings to PGCPS’ Security Services. Employee Relations must also make a determination, and then the area instructional leader and principal weigh in on the outcome.
A Maryland Public Information Act request revealed that as of January 31, 2017, there have been 296 teachers placed on paid administrative leave for the school year, and as of that date, 160 remained on paid administrative leave. At the February 1 PTA meeting, Cesar Pacheco, Assistant Director of Security Services, stated that his office currently has nearly 700 pending cases pertaining to staff throughout the system. This reflects a marked increase from seven years ago when the office handled 250 cases for the entire year.
Having such a large increase in teachers on administrative leave has strained the substitute teaching pool. PGCPS’ Substitute Office has been hard at work increasing the minimum requirements of substitute teachers in the county, such as now requiring at least 60 college credits and preferably a Bachelor’s degree. They have also increased the required number of days a substitute must teach to 45. Over the summer, the office hired an additional 1,000 substitute teachers and continues to aggressively recruit.
Yet this has not been enough. Substitute teachers have the discretion to pick and choose when and where they will work. For situations where a long-term substitute is needed, there is little incentive for a substitute to commit to the entire period of the absence. Current policy requires a substitute teacher to be working for the same teacher for 16 consecutive days before they are eligible for the modestly larger paycheck that accompanies long-term subbing.
PGCPS responded to a Public Information Act request about what guidance has been disseminated to school principals regarding teachers being placed on administrative leave, indicating there are no such documents regarding filling the temporary vacancy caused by the teacher’s absence, creating lesson plans, inputting grades into SchoolMax, or reintroducing the teacher into the classroom at the end of the investigation. During the February 1 public PTA meeting, Dr. Helen Coley acknowledged that communication with parents in affected classrooms has been lacking. As a result, standard boilerplate text has been developed for administrators to give to parents.
I believe that PGCPS needs to continue to take a hard look at the procedures and policies surrounding reporting suspected child abuse and search for solutions to mitigate the disruption to students in the classroom and ensure continuous quality instruction. What has occurred over this school year is simply not good enough. My children, and many others across the county, have missed out on invaluable instruction. Our students deserve better.
I end with some thoughts on how to improve the current situation.
- Assign a long-term substitute immediately to the class when a teacher is placed on administrative leave. Provide the principal with additional support from math and reading specialists if needed and if there are not enough resources at the school.
- Reduce the number of days required for substitute teachers to reach the higher pay level from the current mandate of 16 consecutive days.
- Communicate quickly, openly, and sensitively with parents and students about the teacher’s absence.
- Develop and use a case tracking system so that general, statistical information is available on investigation outcomes and the amount of time for investigations. This is necessary if PGCPS wants to have effective policies and procedures. In response to a Public Information Act request for the average amounts of time investigations were taking and how long it took teachers to be able to return to the classrooms after being cleared of wrongdoing, PGCPS responded, “upon further review with our staff, we do not have the statistical information sought in this request.” PGCPS was also unable to answer how many cases had been resolved without sanction or reprimand in that same Public Information Act request, stating “we do not have a summary or database that describes the disposition of cases in response to this request.” This is troubling. In order to fully understand how well a reporting policy and training is working, there must be data available to study.
- To help mitigate the substitute teacher shortage, consider assigning substitute teachers to specific districts or areas to ensure there are resources throughout the county. For schools that have low response rates from substitutes, perhaps specifically assigning substitutes to the school or implementing some sort of incentives would be useful.
- Four Ways to Reduce Disruption When Teachers are on Long-Term Leave, a PGCABS blog post
- Teacher Pushed Out of Head Start Kept in School System for Months, Washington Post
- Responses to the two Public Information Requests referred to in this post are embedded below.
This post has been edited to reflect new information about paid vs unpaid leave.