Report criticizes workers who investigate abuse

December 19, 1993|By Carol L. Bowers and Andrea F. Siegel | Carol L. Bowers and Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writers

Anne Arundel County public school investigators are poorly trained and will need substantial instruction in how to interview possible child abuse victims and abusers, according to a report written by two lawyers hired to review how such cases have been handled.

Called "amateur sleuths" by lawyers Alan I. Baron and Eleanor M. Carey, the three special assistants to the school superintendent receive scant formal training before being sent to conduct sensitive interviews and draw conclusions about whether abuse may have occurred.

The report documents what critics of the special assistants have said for years, and the prospect of giving them even more clout has riled union leaders.

"Ask yourself this: What kind of training do these people have? Zip," said Richard Covalent, executive director of the Association of Education Leaders, which represents principals. "What are they -- the school police? What do they know?"

Mr. Baron and Ms. Carey delivered the results of their four-month investigation to the Anne Arundel County school board Wednesday. Recommendations included changing the responsibilities of special assistants so they would investigate employee misconduct regardless of the outcome of a police or social service probe. That would include cases police drop for lack of evidence and cases in which a person is acquitted in court.

Their findings would help determine what disciplinary action the school system could take against an employee -- from an oral reprimand to firing.

Minimum qualifications for special assistants already include some counseling skills and studies beyond qualifications for a basic teaching certificate. They also need a driver's license, according to a job description.

But nothing in the description prepares special assistants for the expanded role proposed for them.

"With hindsight, it is abundantly clear to all of us that we made fundamental mistakes," acknowledged Ken Lawson, acting associate super intendent. "But I don't think anyone consciously sat down and thought, 'How can we botch this and prevent child molesters from being caught?' The special assistants assumed too large of an initial role, and it's clear now we shouldn't have done that."

In 1985, for instance, a student claimed a teacher grabbed her genital area. Confronted by a special assistant, the teacher denied it. The matter was dropped by the school system, but the child's parents contacted police. The teacher later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges.

Under state law, the special assistant should have reported the case to social workers or police, instead of investigating at the behest of then-Deputy Superintendent C. Berry Carter II.

"Ten people have held the job since it was created umpteen years ago, and they've all brought good skills to the job," said Huntley Cross, the senior of the three special assistants. "Mr. Covalent and [teachers union President Thomas J.] Paolino have a right to their opinion about the type and quality of the work we do. We are gatherers of information. We assist school administrators and the superintendent. I don't know that we've ever presented ourselves as police officers or private investigators. Our job is simply to ask questions."

He noted that the job entails much more than investigating child abuse complaints. The special assistants' primary job for many years was to investigate disciplinary problems involving students.

"We are people attempting to do the job the best we can, and for all intents and purposes have done a pretty good job," he said. But not everyone agrees. In administrative hearings, accusations against educators based on the work of special assistants are readily beaten because of "the inept investigation they've done," said Mr. Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.

Special assistants "need to be trained to recognize abuse and to do the kind of interviewing to detect a problem," Ms. Carey said. "In some instances, their investigations have kept the lid on problems -- that was the atmosphere in which they worked. If the school board adopts our recommendations, they will now be doing real investigations."

In the past, if interviews pitted a teacher's word against a student's, the special assistants dropped the matter, according to the report. Many of those cases were not turned over to police or social service workers as required by state law -- which helps explain why Northeast High School social studies teacher Ronald W. Price was able to sexually abuse more than a half-dozen students over 20 years. When confronted, he would deny the allegation, and the matter would be dismissed.

"That shouldn't be the end of it," Ms. Carey said. "Other people should be interviewed, and the individual should be monitored."

School board members applauded that notion Wednesday. Even an action does not violate the law, school board President Thomas Twombly said, it might violate school policies. But Mr. Paolino said he is worried that unproven allegations could hound a teacher for years, ruining the teacher's reputation.

"At some point you have to say this is the end. When a person goes to trial and is found not guilty, it should end," Mr. Paolino said.

To teach special assistants the interviewing techniques they'll need, acting Superintendent Carol S. Parham will determine if county police can provide training. She also is considering having special assistants attend workshops run by the county sheriff's office.

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