Privacy vs. parents' right to know Carroll County: In abuse policy, notification should come from investigating agencies.

February 21, 1997

THE BALANCE between a parent's right to know and a school employee's right to confidentiality is a delicate one for the Board of Education in setting policy on student-staff relationships. Like other school systems, Carroll County is trying to revise and clarify its policies to reflect those sometimes conflicting interests.

Policies already in place have provided reasonable protections, consistent with law. Non-professional relationships between school employees and students are forbidden. In cases of suspected sexual harassment or child abuse, the appropriate law enforcement agencies are informed and they conduct the investigations. An employee believed to present a danger to students is suspended with pay or reassigned, pending conclusion of the investigation.

One flaw, raised to the board this month by some parents at Eldersburg's Liberty High School, is that parents are not always notified promptly of any such accusations involving their children. When the allegations do not lead to criminal charges, parents may not find out directly from the schools about any problem.

Those are understandable concerns, especially when the situation involves rumors spreading through a school. And if the only result of an accusation is disciplinary action against an employee, school officials are prohibited by law from discussing the matter, even with parents of children involved.

Where there is a claim of abuse, authorities point out that law requires a child to be interviewed within 24 hours of a report, and parents are generally notified by investigators in short time. There may be lapses, but the law and policies are in place.

At the same time, there is good reason for schools to avoid being the bearers of such information. Law enforcement investigators are the appropriate conduit, as state laws now provide.

False accusations should not be allowed to damage the reputations and careers of school staff members. Requiring that parents be told of every accusation, or interviewed in all such instances, would have that effect.

The school system must, however, be held accountable for complying with the law on promptly reporting suspected abuse. All school employees must be held to that obligation if the system of trust is to function.

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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