Disproportionality in special education and sexual assaults among young students on school grounds were the highlights of Tuesday’s school board meeting in La Plata, where several frustrated parents shared personal experiences about having to remove their children from their schools due to the way the school system handled misbehavior.

“Last year, we created a discipline review committee to review the CCPS Code of Student Conduct, the dress code and cell phone rules. We plan to reconvene the committee in February,” Superintendent Kimberly Hill said as she kicked off the meeting with her updated report, which also noted that additional student input on these topics was sought Thursday when Hill met with the High School Advisory Council. “Our focus this year will be on attendance, in-school suspension and school uniforms.”

Among the frustrated parents who spoke Tuesday during the public forum portion of the meeting was Carl Grieby, whose son is an eighth-grader at Milton Somers Middle School. Although he was there to show support to the families of students that were involved in recent sexual assault incidents at Gale-Bailey Elementary, Grieby shared a separate incident that allegedly happened to his son last month.

Grieby said his son’s glasses were broken after another boy, who had been asked by the teacher to collect an assignment, allegedly hit him in the head when he refused to turn it in during a language arts class. The boy allegedly wasn’t removed from the class on the day of the incident or the following day, according to Grieby.

“My son hates to go to school now. He complains every day and doesn’t want to go to school. I feel horrible for him and don’t know what to tell him,” said Grieby, arguing that his son was still working on the assignment at the time. “He didn’t hit back. I felt like if he did it back, it would have got some immediate attention. But it didn’t.”

Having asked several times to meet or speak with school administration via phone, Grieby said his requests were not honored. He was, however, recently granted a meeting with Hill and deputy superintendent Amy Hollstein which Grieby said he appreciated.

“I feel that sometimes principals and admin have a little too much leeway,” Grieby said, “and there’s not enough regulation to when they have to follow through, and how they follow through.”

Linda McLaughlin, president of the Education Association of Charles County, spoke briefly about some of the reasons why discipline might be happening later on. McLaughlin said her elementary school members have discovered that “the early childhood skill of self-management is not being mastered by students,” and that social-emotional learning “needs to be integrated back” at an early age.

“It is on the kindergarten report cards and is something that our kindergarten teachers look for,” McLaughlin said. “All the way up to the middle school [level], teachers are telling me that they’re not seeing the ability of the students to follow single or multi-step directions without guidance. Until they master that actual ability, then we the educators are the managing agents of their behavior.”

According to McLaughlin, she said those kids “are exhausted and frustrated because they don’t have those skills,” which is causing a “burnout” not only for them but also among teachers who are unable “to do what they love and went to school for.”

If students aren’t able to master self-management at a young age, McLaughlin said, then the school system is “going to be dealing with a lot more” behavioral issues in the future.

Dawn Proctor, who said her daughter was allegedly touched repeatedly in her private parts by a male peer at Gale-Bailey, said sexual assaults are happening “inside the schools” as well as “on the school bus.”

“She asked the little boy to stop and he then commenced to put up his middle finger and [sticking] his tongue out at her,” Proctor recalled. “She told the bus driver [who] told the [former] vice principal. He got on the bus and said something to the little boy. The little boy admitted to it and that was it. I was never notified [or] given a phone call. No disciplinary action has happened with the little boy.”

After calling Gale-Bailey multiple times, Proctor was finally able to get in touch with the new vice principal on Monday. Unfortunately, Proctor felt as though “something was wrong with her” and that she was being bullied “for calling and saying that something should have been done,” she said.

The vice principal was “just like ‘Well, what do you want me to do? He’s just in kindergarten,’” Proctor said. “My response to him then was, ‘What, are you going to wait until he’s in fourth or fifth grade and doing something more horrific to little girls?’ … This is not just [an issue that’s occurring in] middle school or high school. We need to pay a little more attention to elementary school going down to kindergarten. I just want the educators to follow the policies.”

Tim Perrier, another Gale-Bailey parent whose daughter was allegedly sexually assaulted by a group of three other boys during recess on Oct. 30, said he and other parents have since “seen failures at all levels of the public school system.”

“It began on the playground with the vice principal’s failure to report a mandatory item,” Perrier said. “They also put the victims on the bus with the suspects that same afternoon, where one of them was assaulted again.”

Instead of being in school, Perrier said his daughters now stay at home because they fear that those boys “are still sitting in their classroom.” He also noted that the young perpetrators were allegedly moved to another victim’s classroom and had their recess time taken away for two weeks as a consequence.

“I’ve heard that because they’re juveniles, [school officials] can’t do much. I’ve heard from legislators that’s not true,” said Perrier. “Employees are a mirror of their leadership. That’s no different than in this school system. In what world is it OK to put victims of sexual assault in the same classroom with their offenders? It’s not.”

Perrier was one of several parents who participated in an impromptu press conference held Nov. 25 outside of the Jesse L. Starkey Administration Building in La Plata. The Maryland Independent previously reported that no one from either the school board or Gale-Bailey’s administration team attended the conference.

“Terrible things happen to our children, and we cannot undo what was done on that day,” said Seth Heisserman, a parent of one of the victims who participated in last month’s press conference and also testified on Tuesday. “This culture of failing to report and failing to follow through is three things: it’s irresponsible, it’s immoral and it’s illegal.”

Perrier reiterated that the school board has the authority to make the necessary changes to affect positive change in the school system. He urged the board to “make the right choice” and not let those victims “down a final time.”

“Victims continue to suffer when their situation is not properly dealt with,” Heisserman said. “Our daughters, 41 days later, have not received an offer for counseling from anybody in the school system.”

Having met with legislators to change laws “that have ambiguity” and “leave wiggle room for the schools to not report things,” Perrier said he and other parents have also begun advocating for a parent liaison to join both the school board and county commissioners.

“We have found out that there are more laws and regulations that protect the suspects rather than the victims,” said Perrier. “We’ve also met with other families that have come forward to tell us their stories of similar instances where they reported issues and nothing has been done. … That should tell you that there’s a problem in the school system.”

Parent Chelsea Spencer said her daughter was allegedly violated in her private area last week at Indian Head Elementary. School staff told Spencer that the perpetrator was moved to a different class, but it didn’t stop future interactions from occurring as the two students “would still be around each other at recess as well as in the cafeteria.”

Having planned to meet with administrators on Monday at the school, Spencer said her daughter was able to point out the perpetrator nearby while they ate lunch together.

“My daughter felt bad for the little boy because she felt like she got him in trouble,” said Spencer. “But she also felt worried and said that she wasn’t the bad one ,[because] he did bad stuff to her.”

Spencer, who is now seeking resources for homeschooling, said she has since made the decision to immediately withdraw her daughter from Indian Head Elementary. Like Grieby’s son, her daughter also hates school and “never wants to see the boy’s face again,” Spencer said.

“Nothing was done,” she said. “Just moving him to another class gives him an opportunity to touch another kid.”

Having vehemently expressed that he will be meeting with a reporter at NBC4 in Washington, D.C., to share a flash drive with evidence of recent incidents, “Charles County Matters” Facebook group founder Deron Tross said the school system can no longer do “the old way of brushing things under the rug.” He said he will do everything possible to bring change to the school system, even if it means embarrassing the county or school board.

“I’m just going to dump everything I have. I don’t care anymore,” Tross said. “Another child should not be hurt. Did you guys learn anything from the Carlos Bell case?”

Carlos DeAngelo Bell, a former instructional assistant and coach in the school system, was sentenced to 190 years of jail time in April 2018 after he had pleaded guilty to 27 counts of various sexual offenses against minors, as reported in the Maryland Independent. The investigation unearthed 42 child victims ranging in age from 11 to 17. He was also sentenced to 105 years in federal court for 10 counts of soliciting minors for the purpose of producing child pornography.

“The perpetrators don’t get the help they need. They don’t get mandated counseling,” Heisserman said. “Today’s the first day that [a student from Gale-Bailey] had an intake hearing at the department of juvenile services. That was not because of the school system’s actions; that was because of legal action that we pursued which mandated that that take place.”

Tuesday’s public forum was preceded by a presentation from deputy schools superintendent Amy Hollstein who spoke about significant disproportionality as it relates to special education. Out of 1,883 African American students enrolled in special education, Hollstein said more than 283 of those students are suspended for 10 days or less, compared to 87 out of 1,302 of their peers who make up all other races.

When it comes to in-school suspensions for 10 days or less, the risk ratio for black/African American special education students increased from 2.22 in 2017 to 2.23 last year. Those numbers decreased, however, by a risk ratio of 1.66 for suspensions that were greater than 10 days, according to Hollstein.

Hollstein provided a list of ways that the school system plans to address disproportionately, examples of root causes as well as reporting requirements. For more information about her presentation or to review other items from Tuesday’s meeting, go to go.boarddocs.com/mabe/ccpsmd/Board.nsf/Public.

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