What happened in Parkville? Baltimore County: Schools must be more cautious about adults who work near children.

March 17, 1997

IT SHOULD GO without saying that child abusers do not belong in schools. It also should be obvious that any hint of abuse by employees or volunteers should be reported and the reports promptly acted upon.

Nonetheless, experience shows school communities can become too willing to give questionable adults the benefit of the doubt.

What has happened at Baltimore County's Parkville Middle School is an example. Principal Stephen A. Edgar admitted he erred in letting a convicted child molester volunteer with a school play. A week later, the school's chief custodian was arrested after police found him in the building at 3 a.m. with a naked 14-year-old.

The two cases are coincidental and do not appear to reflect systemic disregard for children's welfare at Parkville. They do, however, underscore the need for greater vigilance regarding people who work around children -- from insiders as well as suspicious outsiders.

Threats from the latter are more feared but easier to guard against. Mr. Edgar knew of the volunteer's record. It should have been a simple matter to deny him. But the well-meaning principal allowed him to set lights at night, when children were not present. Contact with kids turned out to be unavoidable, and the principal wisely ended the man's involvement. The volunteer had done nothing wrong, but schools are not the place to test the reformation of known child abusers.

The situation with insiders is less unequivocal, and downright volatile when popular teachers or coaches are involved. State law requires school employees to report the merest suspicion of abuse. But deciding what constitutes suspicion is more difficult.

In this case, the custodian had been noticed talking with girls and helping in gym classes. Observers did not report suspected abuse; it is hard to blame them given that no one appears to have seen the man doing anything but talking. At the same time, administrators knew his behavior was unusual.

It is easy, in hindsight, to say the man should have been fired. On a day-to-day basis, the calls are harder to make.

Still, the rule in such matters must be: If in doubt, err on the side of the child. If it looks odd, investigate. Well-meaning educators must not be reluctant to do that.

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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