Complaint alleges Maryland child-abuse task force violated open-meetings law

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Prince George’s Community College President Charlene Dukes speaking in 2008 in College Park, Md. Dukes is chair of a task force on student safety created by the Prince George’s school system. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

According to Washington post, A Greenbelt resident has filed a complaint alleging that a Prince George’s County task force created to examine the handling of child-abuse issues in schools violated the state’s open-meetings law by closing a March session to the public.

The task force was created in the aftermath of the widely publicized child-pornography case involving Deonte Carraway, 22, a school volunteer arrested in early February on suspicion of directing children as young as 9 to perform sex acts and video-recording them.

Kevin Maxwell, chief executive of the Prince George’s school system, said in an interview in March that meetings of the task force are closed to the public to allow members to “get a lot done in a very short period of time” and that the panel’s recommendations would be released publicly.

“We don’t want folks to have distraction to their conversations and to their work,” he said. “We want to make sure that they can get the work done and that they can get the work done well, with robust conversation and lots of time studying.”

Maxwell said the leader of the task force — Charlene Dukes, president of Prince George’s Community College — would give regular updates.

“We want to make sure that at the end of the process, it is absolutely, 100 percent transparent what their recommendations were,” he said. “It will be a public document. But the open meetings for the most part are about decision-making bodies in public that are discussing public business.”

After reading Maxwell’s comments in a story in The Washington Post, Colin Byrd, 23, filed the complaint with the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board. Byrd is a University of Maryland student from Greenbelt who attended Prince George’s schools as a child.

“I think this kind of lack of transparency erodes the trust in the schools,” Byrd said. “When the task force is undertaking serious business, the public should have the opportunity to see what’s going on.”

In his complaint, Byrd cited a March 1 date that was publicized as the task force’s first meeting. No other meeting dates were publicized, he said.

Maxwell has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the task force, saying in February that it would “carefully scrutinize every single policy and procedure we have in place.” In the Post interview, he said the task force would look at what could have and should have been done differently.

Prince George’s schools officials have not yet received the complaint, spokeswoman Sherrie Johnson said.

The Open Meetings Compliance Board received Byrd’s complaint Monday and mailed a copy to Dukes, giving her panel 30 days to respond, a spokesman said. The compliance board will then decide the issue, he said.

A spokeswoman for Dukes said in an email Thursday that the task force has a lot to do in a short time and that the Open Meetings Act “involves decision making bodies or groups established by public bodies to advise decision-making bodies.”

She also said that the task force had just announced that it is seeking public comment as part of its policy and review process. An online survey has been posted on the school system’s website, with public input accepted until April 15.

“The input and perspective of the public will help inform our recommendations to Dr. Kevin Maxwell and his team,” Dukes said in a statement.

Dukes, a former president of the Maryland State Board of Education, declined a request for an interview about the task force because of “the attention and focus needed on the work of the newly formed committee,” spokeswoman Jennifer Colter said in an email.

Schools officials said the task force met three times in March and will meet again next Wednesday. Its recommendations are expected by May 2. Members include a parent and representatives from universities, a nonprofit group, the private sector, local and state government, and public safety.

Byrd said the group should have included teachers, who he noted are ultimately responsible for carrying out policies in classrooms.

“It’s not going to have the ideal outcome if the right people are not at the table and if the entire community does not have the opportunity to see what’s going on — to see if the i’s are being dotted and the t’s are being crossed,” he said.

Byrd led the successful push at U-Md. last year to rename the university’s football stadium so that it did not honor a former university president who was a segregationist and barred black students from enrolling until a court compelled him to do so.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.

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