Over recent months, media attention has focused on what employees of Prince George’s County have known for a long time: the problem of having too many school staff on administrative leave. According to the Washington Post, as of June 6, there were 142 teachers and 91 other employees off the job.
I am part of that statistic.
I will share part of my story. Of course, there are very strict limits to what I can share. However, with the massive number of employees who have gone through what I am experiencing, it is important for policy makers and the public to know the issue from the perspective of someone in my position.
First, some perspective on the known statistics:
There were 848 PGCPS employees placed on administrative leave this year. That means 4.24%, or about one out of every twenty-four PGCPS employees were paid for days, weeks, or even months to not be at work serving the children of Prince George’s County. To put this in perspective, if students were absent at that rate, many of our schools would not meet their own student attendance targets.
There were some cases where the wrongdoing was real. Of the 615 cases that have been resolved, 196 resulted in a reprimand, suspension, retirement, resignation, or termination. Another 170 or so resulted in a letter of professional counsel. In all, violations of PGCPS policy were found in about 60% of the cases, but only about 10% of the cases rose to the level of requiring the employee leave the school system permanently.
From my perspective, based on past results and not on the merits of my case, I have a 10% chance of needing to search for a new job. I have about a 50% chance of having done something wrong while still keeping my job, but was it really worth having me out of the classroom to determine this? I have about a 40% chance of being completely cleared, in which case my time removed from the classroom has been completely worthless to me and detrimental to the education of the students I serve.
The logic of having the staff member removed from the schools during the investigation is that the employee may interfere with the investigation. This makes sense when an investigation is done in an expeditious manner. The interruption will only last for a few days, and if there is no fault found or only enough fault to warrant a reprimand or letter of counsel, the employee can return to duty in a timely manner.
However, when there is a known backlog of cases and it is widely understood by all parties that the process can take weeks or months, this brings into question whether the use of administrative leave has been misapplied. Certainly, it was necessary in at least 10% of the cases. But what about the other 90%? Was it truly helpful to have the employee off the job for that length of time? What could have been done differently so instruction or other important services were not interrupted or diminished?
Good teachers know that if you are going to crack down on a problem behavior, you have to plan for a timely and efficient enforcement of your class rules. Otherwise, you are not going to be respected by the students, especially those who are trying to do their best and feel like they have all been collectively thrown into a toxic pool of suspicion because of the bad behavior of a few. Why, then, did PGCPS not use that same logic and realize that if they were going to have more reporting of suspected misconduct, they needed to be prepared to handle the increased caseload?
Again, I can’t give details about the nature of my case, but the nature of how the process has been handled is very instructive. When I was put on administrative leave, I was given a vague verbal explanation of the allegations. To this date, I have nothing in writing stating the nature of the allegations. I was told not to have any contact with colleagues, students, or parents and to remain off PGCPS property until advised otherwise.
As I have reviewed the PGCPS administrative procedures pertinent to my case, I have seen many discrepancies between the way procedures were supposed to be handled and the way they actually were handled. I can only conjecture why this is the case, and this is not the forum for that train of thought. What I do know is that I am now in a state of limbo, albeit with a paycheck. I must either resign and face a job market with the stigma of having quit my last job while under investigation or wait until it’s my turn to defend myself and my professionalism. That wait could very well last into the new school year.
As there is now talk of revising the procedures in place, it is important that all stakeholders have a voice in forming the revisions. What we have experienced this year confirms the saying, “You do surgery with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.”
It is not enough to defend a failed policy with cliches like “No price is too high for a child’s well-being.” That line of speech trivializes the matter and seeks to undermine the goodwill of those who are seeking reform. It insinuates that critics of a policy or its implementation are somehow putting other interests above those of our students. Any policy, whether in education or other fields, will have side effects. The quest should be to find the right policy that protects students while limiting the collateral damage to innocent staff members and the students they serve.
In this light, it is important to have the input of the hundreds of staff members who have been on administrative leave and have been cleared of any wrongdoing. I believe that with the number of us that have been on leave in the 2016-2017 school year, there is a collective knowledge base that should be utilized in forming future policy. My fear is that the reforms that are being promised will be another top-down approach that will miss key aspects of the difficult challenges on the frontline.
My hope is that in the 2017-2018 school year, everybody will learn from the mistakes of 2016-2017. The vast majority of teachers are in the profession for good reasons and genuinely want to help their students and Prince George’s County as a whole. However, if positive changes are not made to these procedures, then every teacher will feel at risk. I understand completely when public officials say we risk losing our best teachers to other school districts. The temptation to leave once my case is resolved is huge. I never want to go through this again, and unless I see significant improvement in this policy, I know my career is in jeopardy each and every day I work in Prince George’s County Public Schools.