Schools aim to speed up probes

Faced with a rise in allegations of misconduct against teachers and other Baltimore County school system employees, the district's superintendent wants to hire an additional investigator to help conduct background checks and speed up internal investigations.

The county is one of two in the area with a full-time investigator, but with the number of child-abuse allegations against school system employees more than doubling over a recent two-year period, Superintendent Joe A. Hairston included the request for the additional investigator as part of the budget proposal set for a vote this week.


"We're a large organization," Hairston said of the school system, which has more than 17,000 employees. "Because of heightened nationwide sensitivity to employees' backgrounds, we thought this would be an opportunity for us to be in the best position to handle future investigations."

The school system has one staff member who handles internal investigations, including physical and sexual abuse, theft and embezzlement allegations, according to schools spokesman Brice Freeman. That position was created during the 2002-2003 school year.


In addition to conducting about 5,000 background checks each year, the investigator handles an average of 300 to 400 investigations dealing with additional background screening and post-employment arrests, according to another schools spokeswoman, Kara E.B. Calder.

During the 2005-2006 school year, that investigator handled 85 child-abuse and neglect investigations involving employees, compared with 35 such cases during the 2003-2004 school year. So far this school year, 45 such cases have been investigated, Calder said. Those allegations could involve child sexual abuse, physical or psychological abuse, or leaving a child younger than 8 unattended, according to school system policy.

The investigator handled about 30 other employee misconduct cases, such as theft, during the 2005-2006 school year, the spokeswoman said.

Last week, a man who had taught at Woodlawn High School was charged with sexually abusing a teenage student. In December, a former teacher at Pine Grove Middle School in Carney was charged with the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old student the previous school year.

Because the system launches an internal investigation into every allegation, regardless of the outcome of investigations handled by police or social services, the additional investigator is needed, Freeman said.

"We want to make sure we can investigate more speedily," he said.

The new position, which is included in Hairston's proposed $1.16 billion operating budget for the coming school year, would pay about $61,000 a year. The job requires experience in investigations, law enforcement, corporate security or a related field.

The investigator would primarily be responsible for investigating "cases of alleged misconduct, child abuse and criminal activity involving employees and others," according to the posted job description. He or she would conduct background checks, testify in criminal trials, and coordinate training programs and workshops.


Most neighboring school systems do not have an employee designated full-time for investigations. Carroll, Harford and Howard counties rely on staff members, such as security coordinators, to handle their internal investigations.

Anne Arundel spends nearly $100,000 annually for its Office of Investigations. The office, which includes a full-time and a part-time investigator, handles background checks, fingerprinting and investigations into misconduct allegations.

Patricia Cording, the full-time investigator who oversees the office in Anne Arundel County, said the system handles about 400 cases each year of allegations such as drug and alcohol abuse, insubordination, child abuse, theft and embezzlement.

"We have more than 10,000 employees, and they're all not going to be behaving correctly at all times," said Cording. "But it speaks volumes to our employees that we have only one [full-time investigator] and not 10."

Cording, a former assistant principal and pupil personnel worker in Anne Arundel schools, said that before the investigations office was created in the early 1990s, employee misconduct cases were handled by special assistants to the superintendent and pupil personnel workers.

Having the investigators, she said, is more efficient because "people who need the information get it, and the discipline meted out is more consistent, because it's coming from one place."


State law requires school officials to immediately report suspected child abuse or neglect to the county social services department or the police.

School resource officers, who are stationed in each of Baltimore County's 24 high schools and in about half of its 27 middle schools, function as the first point of contact when a principal needs to report an abuse allegation, according to Cpl. Michael Hill, a county police spokesman.

"The school resource officer would start a very preliminary investigation," including the alleged victim's name and what he or she says has happened, Hill said. The officer then forwards the information to the Police Department's family crisis unit, and the case is assigned to a detective, he said.

Freeman said the system's investigator handles the resulting internal investigation.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said the union supports the move to hire an additional investigator because it would speed up the process for not only determining when an allegation is true but also when it is unfounded.

"We don't support teachers' misuse of authority with students or similar misconduct causing harm to students in any way," Bost wrote in an e-mail. "But we must get innocent teachers back in the classroom as soon as possible."


Baltimore County school board members are scheduled to vote tomorrow on Hairston's proposed operating budget.

Board President Donald L. Arnold said he supports the new investigator position in the budget because it would enable the school system to protect children and staff by efficiently responding to allegations.

"It's unfortunate that we have these situations coming up, but it's the society we're in," Arnold said. "We can't stick our heads in a hole somewhere and avoid it. It's something we need to address."