Council members admonish Montgomery school officials’ handling of misconduct reports

Nicole Asbury Washington Post Feb 9th 2024

The Montgomery County Council chastised school system officials Thursday for their handling of misconduct complaints involving employees, including the district’s release of a lightly redacted report on allegations involving a former principal that came out an hour before that day’s hearing with the county.

The meetingbetween the council’s audit and education and culture committees was meant to focus on a recent county inspector general report that concluded the school system was warned multiple times about deficiencies in its department that handles reports of employee misconduct.Investigators found case files were kept in “chaotic condition” in the department and employees had little guidance on how to look into complaints.

But shortly before the meeting began, the school board released a new version of a report by a law firm into its handling of allegations that former Farquhar Middle School principal Joel Beidleman sexually harassed, bullied and retaliated against school staff. The update — with less information redacted than a version made public last fall — revealed, among other details,that Monifa B. McKnight, then superintendent, knew that concerns about Beidleman’s behavior were “swirling around” before the school board approved his promotion.

Read the lightly-redacted Jackson Lewis report

Jackson Lewis, the law firm, was hired by the district after The Washington Post reported in August that at least 18 verbal and written reports about Beidleman were submitted to school officials dating back to 2016. Beidleman has previously denied many of the allegations. He did not respond to questions Thursday evening aboutthe release of the less redacted report. As of late January, he was no longer a school system employee.

The school system first released a version of the Jackson Lewis report in October. Much of the text was shielded to protect employee privacy, school board members previously said. But council members called for an unredacted version to be shared.

The report released Thursday does not name school employees directly, instead listing them by numbers. But its contents list enough details to make some of the people identifiable, including Beidleman, who is “Employee 25,” and McKnight who is referred to as “Employee 3.”

The report said that while McKnight was aware of concerns “swirling around,”she was not specifically aware of an ongoing investigationinto Beidleman and didn’t inquire for more details about the concerns. She and another employee recommended Beidleman over an external candidate to become Paint Branch High School principal. The school board approved the promotion in June.

MCPS official tampered with investigation of principal, report says

The report said McKnight was told by a friend on July 18 about a forthcoming story by The Post about Beidleman. She met with other employees on July 19, when they discussed an investigation regarding Beidleman and, according to the report, McKnight learned he was going to receive a letter of reprimand.

Yet, she did not tell the school board about the investigation or forthcoming story from The Post when they met the next day. She also didn’t place Beidleman on administrative leave until Aug. 4, after The Post sent detailed questions about Beidleman, the report said.

Jason Downs, an attorney representing McKnight, did not respond to a request for an interview with her Thursday. She left the school system last week after reaching “a mutually agreed separation” with the school board. McKnight was not present at Thursday’s meeting. Instead, interim superintendent Monique Felder represented school administration.

The less redacted version of the report also reveals that staff failed to notify the Title IX coordinator of certain incidents. Title IX coordinators are charged with overseeing complaints of sex discrimination.

At Thursday’s meeting,a few council memberswere seen reading through the report as they asked questions from the dais. Theyasked school board president Karla Silvestre why it took so long formore detailsto be released. Silvestre replied that the school board’s attorneys had a busy week and that it took time to review what could be unredacted from the report.

Montgomery school board apologizes for mishandling misconduct complaints

County Council President Andrew Friedson said the report was released “at the 11th hour … with really not enough time to prepare for our line of questioning in a meaningful way.”Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare

“I think it begs the question of the commitment of transparency and accountability that we really need to see from the board of education and from MCPS,” Friedson (D-District 1) said. “What we have seen with this report and the sharing of information related to the report is not adequate.”

Chief among the county council’s concerns were whether any employeesinvolved in Beidleman’s promotion remained in the school system. The Jackson Lewis report said five employees who had been part of the process had been aware of an investigation into Beidleman.

Brian Hull, the school system’s chief operating officer, said thatof the five, two are being investigated, two are no longer with the school system, and one has been disciplined and returned to work.

The council also expressed concern about the employees in theschool district’s Department of Compliance and Investigations, the office charged with handling employee misconduct complaints.

Watchdog calls Montgomery schools’ handling of misconduct complaints ‘chaotic’

Council member Marilyn Balcombe (D-District 2) said the school system recently requested an increase in funding for the investigations departmentas a part of its recommended budget for the nextfiscal year.

“I’m really reluctant to look at additional funding for this issue if the people who were in place prior to allow this to happen are still there,” she said, contending that the department “has been completely ineffective.”

Silvestre said the department has new leadership. Many of the investigators are new.

In addition,experts in compliance and investigations are also offering further recommendationsfor changes to the school systemand the districthas added software to monitor trends in submitted complaints.

“So much of this stuff is 101,” said council member Will Jawando (D-At Large), who chairs the education and culture committee. “It’s just amazing to me that in a system of this size that we are this inadequately behind.”