Rushing to close school sex scandal

May 02, 1994

Last month, the Anne Arundel County Board of Education effectively excused every school employee who disobeyed child abuse reporting laws, saying they were just following orders. The educators whose negligence helped convicted sex abuser Ron Price stay in the classroom and relegated dozens of other cases to storage closets and trash heaps will not get so much as a letter of reprimand. "There is nothing to be gained" by disciplining these people, the board ruled.

But the schools do have something to gain: the credibility that comes with being willing to accept the consequences of wrongdoing, and the trust of parents disillusioned by a system that historically protected its own people more than the children placed in its charge.

The need for accountability became obvious as the Price scandal ran its course and evidence mounted that suspected child abuse was routinely ignored instead of reported to police or social services, as state law requires. Such negligence was not the work of one or two people. Investigator Alan I. Baron found "a general failure at all levels of school administration" to report child abuse. Yet only two people have been punished -- former superintendent C. Berry Carter, who, as deputy superintendent, fostered the practice of investigating abuse cases in-house to avoid embarrassment; and former Northeast High principal Joseph Carducci, who, ironically, finally reported Price.

Logistically, it would be almost impossible and certainly counterproductive to seek out every employee who suspected abuse but didn't report it; there are too many for that. But does that mean employees known to have been negligent as a result of the Baron probe should not be reprimanded in some way? The board's eagerness to absolve everyone as "innocent cogs in a flawed machine" smacks of the same "protect our own" philosophy that led to the abuse reporting problem in the first place.

Degrees of culpability vary. There is no reason for teachers and others who truly did not know the law, especially those who alerted their superiors to signs of abuse, to receive more than minimal censure. However, higher-ranking officials who knew better -- or should have known better -- should not get off so easily. Their records should reflect their negligence, not just for punitive reasons, but so they cannot make the same mistakes again and excuse themselves by saying they thought they were doing the right thing.

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