BOWIE, MD (WUSA9) – Teacher morale is being crushed by a “witch hunt” atmosphere in Prince George’s County that has resulted in at least 636 school staffers being placed on paid administrative leave since August to investigate allegations of misconduct that prove to be unfounded or minor, according to union officials and a teacher who is currently being investigated.
“Teachers now feel they can’t do their job,” said Ritchie Knox, a masters degree-holding art teacher who remains on paid administrative leave after a misconduct allegation leveled against in in mid-January.
“There are good and great teachers on leave right now for things that wouldn’t have been (issues) a year or two years ago,” Knox said.
The irony, Knox says, is that reported a concern he had to Prince George’s Child Protective Services himself, and is now the one paying the price by being taken off the job.
“I bought into the system and I followed the protocols and training,” Knox said. “I trust they’ll figure out what’s going on and I’ll be exonerated and I’ll get back to work.”
Knox and employee union officials say the school system was not prepared to handle the flood of reports they got after dramatic reforms made in 2016 regarding child safety in the wake of abuse scandals, including the conviction of a school volunteer who for coercing children to make pornographic cell phone videos.
All school employees were retrained with an emphasis on reporting any suspicion or incident, no matter how minor, and regardless of whether there was hard evidence immediately available.
Teachers and principals have been placed on leave and investigated for issues as minor has having incidental “bumping” contact with students in crowded hallways, according to Doris Reed of the Association of Supervisory and Administrative School Personnel, the union representing principals.
Reed said in one case a principal was fired even though authorities could not sustain the report against her.
In another case, a school staffer was placed on leave for using the word “asinine”, according to Knox.
The paid administrative leave can last from two days to several months, according to Raven Hill, spokesperson for PGCPS.
Knox says colleagues complain that unruly students are quick to make reports of misconduct in order to punish teachers they have conflict with.
Parents are becoming concerned.
“Some of these students are making incidents up because they are failing classes and getting back at the teachers,” reported one parent during a WUSA9 Facebook Live discussion on the subject Friday.
Another parent complained her child has not had a regular math class for more than two months because of the crisis.
Board of Education member Edward Burroughs has begun to circulate a petition demanding a review of the system for reporting and investigating allegations of wrongdoing by school staff.
The administration of school CEO Dr. Kevin Maxwell made a mistake by not including teachers or labor leaders in the safety task force formed after the 2016 abuse scandals, according to Theresa Dudley, President of the Prince George’s Educators Association, the union representing teachers.
The teacher’s union is concerned too many children are going without proper instruction because of the turmoil caused when teachers are yanked out of the classroom for investigations of minor misconduct.
Knox said he supports the school CEO and the efforts to make student safety the top priority, but the must be balance.
“The pendulum has swung too far,” Knox said.
PGCPS and Prince George’s Child Protective Services have added additional investigators to handle the increase in reports, Hill said. She could not provide an exact number.
School officials say they cannot say how many accused school staff have had complaints cleared with no penalties, or how many have had complaints sustained against them.