State school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick will seek legislation allowing local superintendents to review final Department of Social Services reports of child abuse investigations involving school employees.
The problem with superintendents not seeing the final reports -- which state whether the charge is "indicated," unsubstantiated, C or ruled out, and name the alleged abuser -- is that the superintendent can't make an informed decision about an employee's job status, Dr. Grasmick said in an interview last week at her Baltimore office.
In some cases, she said, DSS may indicate abuse has occurred, but conclude there is insufficient evidence to prosecute.
"The problem is you don't know whether the investigation substantiated the claim, that this is a legitimate allegation, or whether it's a nonissue," said Dr. Grasmick. "We've not had access to that information because DSS files are restricted."
Dr. Grasmick's comments, made during an interview last Wednesday, come as a spate of child sexual abuse charges against teachers at Northeast High School in Pasadena are being resolved.
Friday, an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court jury found Laurie S. Cook innocent of charges she had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old male student.
In September, Ronald W. Price, a former social studies teacher at the school, was convicted of having sex with three of his former female students and sentenced to 26 years in prison.
Charles A. Yocum, once named Teacher of the Year at the school, is awaiting trial on charges he had sex with a 16-year-old female student.
DSS files are kept secret to protect the individual who was allegedly abused and the person accused of committing the abuse, said Helen Szablya, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources.
"It's very important that it be kept confidential until an investigation is completed," said Ms. Szablya.
"Once we've made a decision on the situation, it really goes out of our hands [to police and prosecutors]. What's important here is that the Department of Education and social services want to come up with a system that will work, that will keep students and teachers safe."
Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland, said he would withhold judgment until he heard more details of the superintendent's proposal. But the idea, he said, worried him.
The proposal does "raise questions of confidentiality in a case where a person has been found innocent," he said. "If nothing has been found, why should the superintendent have to know about it?"
Dr. Grasmick's proposal was lauded by Ken Lawson, acting associate superintendent for the Anne Arundel County school system, who said it would help officials decide whether a teacher should be returned to the classroom regardless of the DSS findings.
Secrecy surrounding the reports is one reason school systems usually conduct their own investigations into child abuse allegations as soon as DSS and the police are finished with their probes, Mr. Lawson said.
"Having access to the final DSS report would certainly be helpful and provide a much more consistent picture in these cases," he said.
Dr. Grasmick said the DSS information given to superintendents would be regarded as confidential employee information, and therefore would not be made public.
Having the reports, however, wouldn't necessarily eliminate the need for school systems to conduct their own probes, she said.
For instance, Mr. Lawson explained, a teacher's behavior might not meet the DSS definition of child abuse, "but the employee's behavior is so egregious to us, in terms of appropriateness, that we feel we have to take disciplinary action."
So even if an employee's action is not considered child abuse, an investigation would be needed to determine whether discipline -- such as reprimand, suspension or firing and loss of certification to teach -- is appropriate, Mr. Lawson said.
"From the standpoint that it would provide us information that we could use to help protect our kids, absolutely it's a good idea," he said.