A revised version of controversial school rules for dealing with physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect still has the potential to hamper prosecution of cases, a Columbia child advocate says.
Ellen Mugmon, a member of the Governor's Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, says she does not believe a rewritten policy and accompanying "memorandum of understanding" meet suggestions contained in a state attorney general's opinion. The memorandum describes how agencies work together on abuse investigations.
The policy has been under revision since the school board adopted it amid criticism from child advocates, police and prosecutors in July 1991. Critics worried that a provision allowing school officials to conduct their own investigations might affect evidence and jeopardize prosecutions.
The latest version leaves investigations to police and the Department of Social Services, but reserves for school officials the option to fire accused employees or return them to the classroom before the case has been tried.
"If you proceed, you may have some effect on the case," Mugmon told board members when the revision was introduced May 14. The policy and memorandum of understanding are scheduled for a vote at Thursday's board meeting.
According to the attorney general's opinion, a school system "should not seek to adjudicate a final disposition of a personnel action against an alleged child abuser . . . without the prior consent of the state's attorney."
The county State's Attorney's Office, however, sees no potential problems.
"I think [a section that requires] open lines of communication addresses that," said Assistant State's Attorney Walter Closson. "They're going to contact us and talk to us about it."
He added, "There may be times when the only thing that happens is termination [of an accused employee] because we can't make the criminal case."
The risk that a school system could jeopardize prosecution is low, "but what we urged is that county school boards err on the
side of caution," said Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions and advice in the Attorney General's Office.
TC The policy requires school officials to reassign accused employees or place them on administrative leave pending review of the charges. But Schwartz said that if school officials returned an accused teacher to the classroom before trial, the case might be more difficult to prosecute because a defense could be made that an agency of Maryland had determined that the teacher was innocent.
Board Vice Chairman Dana F. Hanna sees a practical problem in delaying personnel action until after the case is tried.
"Some criminal cases can take forever. It needs to come to some kind of finality. We can't have people languishing in the central office for year after year," he said.
Revisions in the policy during the last 10 months have come through what Associate Superintendent James R. McGowan described as a "collaborative" process. The process involved police and the county Department of Social Services, who investigate reports of physical or sexual abuse or neglect, the state's attorney and school officials.
Social Services Director Samuel W. Marshall said he is satisfied with the memorandum.