UPPER MARLBORO, Md. - For the first time, the head of Prince George's County Public Schools is talking about the hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and misconduct by school staff.
FOX 5 was first to uncover that there have been nearly 800 abuse and misconduct cases so far this school year. Some staff members say new policies put in place after high-profile abuse cases are an overreaction and good teachers are being unnecessarily pulled from their classrooms - sometimes for months while under investigation.
For more than a month, FOX 5 has made repeated requests for an interview with Prince George's County Public Schools CEO Dr. Kevin Maxwell. On Thursday, we caught up with him at a school board meeting for an unscheduled interview.
"I'm not going to say that we don't have some over reporting that is going on," Maxwell said. "But I think you have to take that in the context of we have had some very serious things done to our children and they are absolutely unacceptable and we will never, ever tell our employees not to report things that they think are child abuse."
We asked Maxwell if he thought current policies on abuse were strong.
"I think the board policies are fine," Maxwell said. "I think we need to make some adjustments and some of our procedures that we are operating under and make clear. We have made some adjustments in our practices."
"Are we going to see a repeat of this next year?" Watts asked.
"Absolutely not," Maxwell replied. "We are already not seeing a repeat of what we saw at the beginning of the year or at the end of last year. We are already much improved."
FOX 5 opened records requests in March and again in April that showed abuse and misconduct cases jumped from 636 to 788.
"When you want to mix apples and oranges and you want to throw in the conduct in those kinds of things as opposed to abuse, we have to be careful which category we are talking about," Maxwell said. "Are we saying that we should just ignore misconduct? I don't think we want to go there. I think we want to make sure that we keep our children safe and do what we think is appropriate and expect our people to be professional in that."
When Maxwell was pressed on the issue, he attempted to end the interview with us. We then asked why there would be any change next year if procedures and reporting standards remained the same.
"The standards for how we conduct ourselves professionally will not change," he said. "If someone believes, if you believe that a child has been abused, you should report that to child protective services. We are mandatory reporters under state law. I will never tell an employee in Prince George's County that if they believe a child has been abused, that they should not report that, and so that standard will be there because it is the law."
He also said, "I have already that our numbers are down and they will continue to go down."
Maxwell then walked away from our cameras.
Teachers told FOX 5 it is now to the point that if they a touch a child for any reason, they run the risk of being put on leave, and that students know they can make up allegations to get rid of teachers. In a majority of these cases, the accused staff members are sent home on paid leave. The head of the teachers union brought up the issue at Thursday's board meeting.
"The morale is low," said Theresa Dudley, president of Prince Georges County Educators' Association. "When teachers can leave here for surrounding jurisdiction where they don't fear for their job for an accusation that is not true."
Dr. Maxwell had this to say about low staff morale.
"I have heard a little bit about morale, but I can tell you I have been a lot of different places, and you heard me talk about a few of them in the board meeting tonight," he said. "And I will tell you that just as many people are coming up and saying, 'I like what you're doing. Thanks for keeping our children safe.'"
He said it is unclear if the number of teachers who have been put on leave is impacting students, emphasizing that there are 128 teachers currently on leave. The majority of those accused over the course school year have been returned to work.
"We are not seeing big declines in our (student) promotion rates, we are not seeing big declines in pass rates," Maxwell said.
FOX 5 will continue to follow this story. You can reach reporter Lindsay Watts at firstname.lastname@example.org