UPPER MARLBORO, Md. - A former D.C. police officer turned Prince George's County educator is telling her story after being suspended for alleged child abuse.
Melody Rich-Neal, who was eventually cleared of the charge, is among more than 600 Prince George's County Public Schools staff members accused of abuse or misconduct this school year. It is a result of strict new policies adopted after several high-profile abuse cases in the school system.
"You walk in with a clear record, and then you walk out fighting for your life," Rich-Neal said.
She said after retiring from D.C. police, she spent 14 years working as a substitute in the county, with most of that time spent at William Paca Elementary School in Hyattsville. She said she was at the school most days, and even started several programs for students, including dance and cheerleading.
"I fell in love with the school because it made me feel like I was part of the family," said Rich-Neal.
In January, she said her assistant principal informed her that she was being suspended after a child reported she had hit him.
Rich-Neal said the claim came from an incident where she separated two students who were being disruptive. She said she never touched either of them.
She was eventually cleared of the allegation and FOX 5 confirmed she is now able to go back to work. But she said with no protections in place, she can't risk something like this happening again.
"I was cleared of all charges, but you disciplined me," she said. "I was guilty first."
She and other Prince George’s County Public Schools staff members told FOX 5 that some students are fully aware they can get rid of staff they don't like – at least temporarily.
"They know – 'Oh shoot, all I got to do is say this and she'll be gone.' And they're right," said Rich-Neal.
Full-time staff members put on administrative leave are paid while they are under investigation, but substitutes are not. Another longtime substitute, who did not want to be identified, said she has been on leave for nearly six months after working in the school district for years and depending on the income. She said it stemmed from an incident where she asked a student who kept putting on his hood to remove his sweatshirt. She said she touched the shirt and was told by the student he didn't have anything on underneath.
Prince George’s County Public Schools officials acknowledge that they may have as many as 1,000 alleged misconduct cases for this school year. FOX 5 has asked what is being done to prevent a repeat next school year.
Prince George’s County Public Schools spokeswoman Raven Hill confirmed that there will be training on the issue this summer for principals and supervisors and potentially all staff. She provided this statement to FOX 5 on Tuesday:
“There are ongoing discussions about our student safety policies and procedures and changes to staff training. We are reviewing the procedures approved last year as part of the Student Safety Task Force recommendations to determine any necessary changes. In addition, we are taking a close look at our training for all staff, including principals, substitute teachers and bus drivers. There’s an obvious need to provide more clarity to staff in reporting misconduct allegations and to offer training on classroom management, structure and positive student behavior strategies. That will be our focus over the next few months in preparation for the 2017-18 school year.”
School officials said that the majority of this year's misconduct cases have resulted in staff being cleared to return to work.
FOX 5 will continue to follow this story.