Sex abuse cases raise questions about county policies

By Pablo Roa, Production Editor

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In light of recent incidents involving inappropriate behavior conducted by two MCPS staff members, some county officials are questioning whether principals are taking appropriate measures and doing enough to communicate with parents on matters regarding staff behavior.

According to a November 2014 Gazette article, MCPS officials believe that the county can clarify and improve the way principals communicate with parents and members of the school community when a staff member faces an allegation or suspicion of child abuse.

“In my 3.5 years as superintendent, I have seen our schools and offices handle [child abuse] matters appropriately,” Superintendent Joshua Starr said in a Dec. 4 press statement. “A vast majority of the time, we get this right. However, recent incidents have caused me to believe that there is more we can do to improve our processes and procedures. The safety and well-being of our students is too important to accept the status quo.”

Starr’s concerns stem from recent child abuse scandals involving staff members at John T. Baker Middle School in Damascus and Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown.

Substitute teacher Jose Pineda, 50, was arrested in mid-October after an allegation that he inappropriately touched a Clemente student. Pineda was charged with one count of sexual abuse of a minor and one count of third-degree sexual offense.

Earlier that month, security camera technician John Edward Epps Jr., 44, was arrested for inappropriately touching a Baker student; he now faces assault and sex offense charges.

According to a November 2014 WJLA article, Epps Jr. has worked in 58 Montgomery County schools over the last six months and was previously charged by prosecutors in D.C., Maryland and Pennsylvania for sex-related offenses in 2001, 2010 and 2013, respectively.

Although Epps Jr. was arrested Oct. 7, Baker Principal Louise Worthington did not notify parents or community members of the incident until after ABC 7 News broke the story nearly a month later. Once the story broke, administrators rushed to send letters home to parents detailing the incident. But the damage was done, and many parents are criticizing MCPS for attempting to cover up the issue.

According to Principal Joan Benz, MCPS follows a strict protocol when dealing with child abuse allegations and ensuring that parents stay informed is a key part of the process.

“I don’t know what direction those principals were working with, but I know that policies are very much in place that as soon as you have any indication that there is an inappropriate situation, you’re supposed to report it immediately, and usually it gets communicated to parents as well – even if it’s just an allegation,” Benz said.

While Benz acknowledges that keeping parents informed is critical in cases of child abuse, she believes that it is also important for schools to be mindful of ongoing investigations when disclosing information to parents and community members.

“When an investigation is going on, I think the school system has to be careful that it does not look like they are determining that the person is guilty before they have had due process,” Benz said.

For this reason, the first step that principals follow when dealing with child abuse cases is usually to report them to MCPS central office officials, who then advise the school on how to proceed with the case and how to coordinate with law enforcement and parents moving forward.

Benz believes that MCPS’s protocol for dealing with child abuse cases is appropriate and that the procedures and policies do not have to change, as long as people follow them.

Senior Kalina Simeonova, on the other hand, says there is generally a lack of transparency in how MCPS makes its decisions and that it is the responsibility of administration to keep students and parents informed at all times.

“I think it’s essential for principals to communicate effectively with parents, students and community members,” Simeonova said. “The fact that a school withheld information about a child abuse case is very disturbing. If school administrators expect us to be honest and responsible, then they should definitely be held to the same standard.”

Although the lack of communication by school officials in recent child abuse cases is alarming to many, Starr and the rest of MCPS leadership have taken steps to ensure that it does not happen again in the future.

“I created a work group that includes staff, community members, and representatives of the police, Child Protective Services (CPS) and the state’s attorney’s office, to review our regulations, policies, and protocols and help us develop training and resources,” Starr said in the press statement. “This builds on our already strong relationship with the police, CPS, and the state’s attorney’s office. I appreciate their partnerships and their commitment to children.”

County officials also held a training session for all MCPS principals Nov. 17 to reinforce the protocols for when there is an allegation of abuse and to review the expectations for communicating with parents. The meeting followed up on a training session done in October of last year, in partnership with the police and CPS, which reviewed protocols for monitoring and reporting allegations of abuse.

“I think this issue is extremely important,” Benz said. “We not only want students to feel safe in their schools, but we also want parents to feel that when their children are in school they are being protected from anyone who would want to abuse or treat them inappropriately. I think communicating effectively with parents is very high on the priority list of what principals have to do.”