Defying the wishes of police, prosecutors and social workers, a divided county school board last week adopted a policy on reportingsuspected child abuse cases that allows investigation by school system officials.
"It leaves us the option to gather additional information if we need it . . . to determine whether we could or should go ahead with administrative action against an alleged abuser," School SuperintendentMichael E. Hickey said.
But that option is just what authorities who deal with child abuse said they had been negotiating for months to eliminate from school policy.
"There shouldn't be any involvement by school officials in investigation at all," said Dr. Charles Shubin, vice chairman of the Governor's Council on Child Abuse and Neglect. "Somebody's got to start considering the kids, and what I'm hearing is not concern for the children so much as it is concern for the system."
Allowing school officials to conduct their own investigations can only mean putting children through the trauma of additional interviews about allegations of physical or sexual abuse, he said.
"We wrote a law to minimize the trauma," Shubin said, referring to a state law requiring police, social services and prosecuting agencies to conduct joint investigations of child abuse so children would not be subjected to multiple interviews. "We never dreamt that anyone elsewould want to do their own investigations."
Police officers, who met with school officials earlier last week, said they were caught off-guard by the board's decision.
"We had not been given a final document," said Lt. Daniel Davis of the Howard County Police Department, who is in charge of child abuse investigations. The department supported language prohibiting school officials from engaging in independent investigations.
The policy, adopted by the school board Thursday night, requires any school employee or volunteer who hears of a case of possible child abuse to report it to police and the county Social Services Department immediately. It also prohibits the employee from conducting an independent investigation.
But the policy prohibits only investigation by "school-based employees" -- administrators and teachers at the alleged victim's school -- and leaves open the possibility of investigation by others in the school system.
Board member Karen B. Campbell moved that the word "based" be omitted, so as to prohibit all school employees from investigating.
"This has been supported by all the people who deal with child abuse," including county police and social services departments and the State's Attorney's Office, Campbell said. "They've all told us not to muddy the waters with investigation" that could jeopardize criminal prosecution.
But only board member Susan J. Cook agreed with Campbell, and the motion was defeated, 3-2.
"There are situations where we need to takeaction," board vice chairman Dana F. Hanna said. As an employer, he said, the school system must base its actions, which could include the firing of an alleged abuser, on some form of first-hand information.
Hanna was joined by board chairman Deborah D. Kendig and member Ruth Y. Hutchinson in voting to retain the system's investigative power.
In other action Thursday, the board:
* Approved schedules that restored Oakland Mills Middle School's 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. hours.
* Added a section to the attendance policy that permits a high school principal to deny credit in a subject to a student absent from 20 classes.