State officials plan child-abuse checks School workers to be interviewed

August 06, 1993|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writer

State education officials will fan out through 23 of Maryland's 24 local school systems later this month to ask everyone from bus drivers to department heads if they know what to do if they suspect a child is being abused or neglected.

The first-ever spot checks are a direct result of the findings that Anne Arundel County school officials mishandled allegations that Northeast High School teacher Ronald W. Price had sexual liaisons with students over at least the last seven years.

Investigators found that many Anne Arundel teachers either were unaware of the law or thought they were supposed to report suspicions only to a guidance counselor or an administrator.

Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of education, was particularly concerned about those findings and ordered the checks on other school systems.

The findings will be evaluated with an eye toward helping school districts improve, said Mary K. Albrittain, chief of the pupil services and drug-free school branch of the state Department of Education.

"We're not there to find out if you are good or bad, or to see if you are weak or strong, or point a finger. We are there to make them stronger," she said.

Mrs. Albrittain said 10 employees of the state department will be interviewing local school workers. "They'll probably do an 'Oh, no, they're here' thing," she predicted.

Because investigators were just there, Anne Arundel County probably will not be included in the checks.

Superintendents are to receive a letter next week from Dr. Grasmick telling them of the pending visits. Mrs. Albrittain said that interviews will be done at elementary, middle and high schools, starting in about two weeks and ending no later than the end of September. Among other things, interviewers will ask when an employee was last trained to detect signs of possible abuse or neglect, if that employee knows to whom to report suspicions of neglect and whether the employee understands Maryland's child abuse law.

The law requires educators to report suspected sexual and physical abuse and neglect to the local Department of Social Services and/or police, and to the school principal, then follow with a written report within 48 hours.

In Anne Arundel County, investigators concluded that school officials did not adhere to the law, though teachers, school administrators and central office staff were aware of allegations that Mr. Price was sleeping with students well before his arrest this spring.

State investigators noted that Anne Arundel County's "HELP Manual" on emergency and legal issues for school administrators accurately describes the law on reporting suspected child abuse, but they said that its introduction may send "the wrong message." That preface says the handbook "should be considered as guidelines only, not rigid procedural rules that can never be altered to meet conditions."

Mrs. Albrittain's office is in the midst of collecting copies of each school system's policies on reporting suspected abuse, what information about reporting suspected abuse is given to employees, and similar information.

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