Hundreds of Prince George's school staff members put on leave in misconduct cases this school year

An open records request to Prince George's County Public Schools found hundreds of staff members are being put on administrative leave for abuse and misconduct allegations. Teachers tell FOX 5 the high number isn't about widespread abuse, but a system that isn't working.

The records request stated that 299 staff members were on leave for misconduct as of March 8, and there had been a total of 636 misconduct cases so far for the 2016-2017 school year. For perspective, Montgomery County, the largest district in the state, currently has less than 20 staff members out for misconduct.

High-profile child abuse cases in Prince George's County Public Schools led the school district to revamp policies last year with the schools' CEO mandating new training for employees and requiring staff report any and all suspicions of wrongdoing directly to child protective services.

"Everything literally gets reported at this time," said Lewis Robinson, director of Prince George's County Public Schools' Employee and Labor Relations. "Do I think it's a good thing? Yes, I actually think it's a good thing. Because I think we have the ability to weed through and deal with what is out there."

But teachers tell FOX 5 the district has gone too far and good teachers are being pulled from their classrooms unnecessarily. Two teachers spoke to FOX 5 about the situation, but requested anonymity to protect their jobs.

"I think it's a situation where people are trying to do the right thing, but doing it in a very poor way," one teacher said.

She said students are being hurt because their teachers are out, and substitutes and remaining staff have too much to handle.

"(Students) are getting pushed to the next grade level and they may have gone six or ten months without a reading teacher or a math teacher," she said. "This is really serious lack of education."

She and other teachers FOX 5 spoke to said staff members are fearful to have any type of physical contact with students, even if a child needs help. She said she was recently called by students into a class to help break up an altercation.

"The teacher was standing there separate from them saying, 'Please stop, please stop, please stop,'" she said. "And the one student just had the other student by the neck. And so I stepped in and I removed her hands from the child's neck. And the teacher came to me later and she said, 'Well, what are we supposed to do in that situation? I thought we're not supposed to touch the kids?' And for me, I'm willing to lose my job to make sure that a kid doesn't get hurt."

Another teacher told FOX 5 that she has seen students threaten to put teachers on leave and worries about accidently bumping into the wrong kid.

"You turn into their stomach or something and if it's the wrong student, they will report you," she said. "The kids know they can take us out. They can get us suspended; they can have our jobs at risk. It's like the old saying - the inmates are running the asylum."

District officials stand by the new approach, even while acknowledging they may have a thousand cases of misconduct by year's end. Robinson said most staff members are cleared of allegations and eventually returned to their position.

He said the district is examining its current procedures and admits staff needs more training on reporting suspicions of abuse.

"Do we need some re-training and some additional training? Absolutely," he said.

FOX 5 asked if the current policy was for staff not to touch students under any circumstance.

"No, we have never said that," Robinson replied.

When asked if he can understand why teachers are wondering what's acceptable, he said, "I would also say that we have not terminated one teacher for separating kids and breaking up a fight."

He said when teachers are cleared of abuse charges, they get a letter officially clearing them and an apology for the situation.

"We recognize the position this places an individual in," Robinson said. "But at the same time, we can't ignore the allegations. We have to pursue and follow every allegation, and just hope that in the end, we are doing a good job and we are doing the right thing both for our kids and employees."

District officials would not discuss the financial implications of teachers on leave continuing to collect a paycheck, while substitutes had to be brought in to replace them.

Since FOX 5's open records request in March, the number of staff members on leave has gone down from 299 to 153.

FOX 5 will continue to follow this story.