Montgomery school board apologizes for mishandling misconduct complaints

Nicole Asbury Washington Post Feb 7th 2024

Montgomery County school board members apologizedTuesdayfor the district’s failures in handling of employee misconduct complaints and vowed to heal the school system.

“We are deeply sorry for the pain that this has caused so many employees and the harm to this district,” board president Karla Silvestre said during a meeting. “It has not always listened to its employees. It has not always properly investigated complaints, and it has not created a process that ensures employees feel free to speak up.

She added that it was “time for the school system to heal.”

The school board met to review findings from investigations by a private law firm and the county’s inspector general of how the school system handled allegations of employee misconduct.

The investigations were launched after The Washington Post published an investigation in Augustthat revealed former Farquhar Middle School principal Joel Beidleman was the subject of at least 18 verbal or written reports alleging sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation submitted to the school district dating back to 2016. While he was under investigation, the school board promoted Beidleman to become principal of Paint Branch High School. He has denied many of the allegations, and he left the school system in January.

Shortly after The Post’s investigation published, the school system announced it hired the Baltimore-based law firm Jackson Lewis to scrutinize its handling of the complaints. A heavily redacted report released by the school board found that five individuals who participated in Beidleman’s promotion processknew about an internal investigation into his conduct, among other findings.

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The Montgomery County inspector general later announced it would launch inquiries to review all allegations about Beidleman submitted to the school system by July 2023 and other allegations that were not investigated, as well as a broader evaluation of the school system’s handling of misconduct complaints.

A report released in November on the initial inquiryfound that Beidleman violated the system’s sexual harassment and bullying policies.

In itssecond inquiry, the inspector general’s officefound that school officials were warned four times of deficiencies within the Department of Compliance and Investigations, which is charged with evaluating employee misconduct complaints. However, the school system did little to fix the problems, according to the watchdog’s report.

Silvestre saidTuesday that school board members learned about the previous warnings for the first time in late November and early December, after making a request for documentation involving human resources. Through the request, the board saw a previous 2019 investigation from a law firm and two other internal reviews that noted some of the problems.

The school board spent about two hours discussing the county watchdog’s investigations. Brian Hull, thedistrict’schief operating officer; April Key, chief of human resources and development; and Stacey Ormsby, the acting director of the Department of Compliance and Investigations, answered questions about changes being made to the compliance department’s processes and policies.

Ormsby said since she became acting director earlier this school year, she has set protocols to investigate anonymous misconduct complaints, which at times were previously were ignored by the compliance office. The office has also added software to monitor for trends in complaints. She told the board she also is working to set timelines for when an investigation should be completed once more staff members are added to the office. Ormsby said experts in compliance and investigations are expected to offer recommendations for other potential changes.Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare

School board member Lynne Harris (At Large) asked Ormsby if she wascreatingprocesses forhow to review“collateral complaints” — which are additional allegations about an employee shared by witnesses during an investigation. Harris explained that the school system had “no plan” for investigating those types of allegations, unless a witness separately filed their own complaint.

“What I’ve communicated very clearly and consistently is that all complaints will be reviewed and/or investigated,” Ormsby answered. “The investigation doesn’t end with that initial complaint.”

The school system also plans to refine its job descriptions for people hired in the Department of Compliance and Investigations. Harris said clarifying the qualifications and expectationsfor hireswas a necessary move.

“Human resources is a profession. Recruiting is a profession. Investigating complaints is a profession,” she said. “We have not put professionals in those role.”

She added that these changes were now one of the “non-negotiables in what the board expects.”

The school boardsaid it plans to update the county inspector general every 90 days on its progress on some of the office’s recommendations. It will also discuss its progress again during a board meeting scheduled on April 23.

In the meantime, the county watchdog reports also will be the focus of a meetingThursdaywith the Montgomery County Council’s Audit, and Education and Culture committees. Some county council members have recently called on the school board to release an unredacted version of the Jackson Lewis report.

Silvestre said the school board has been reevaluating its redactions to see if any more content could be shared publicly.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first without former schools superintendent Monifa B. McKnight, who announced Friday that she wouldleave the districtafter reaching a “mutually agreed separation” with the school board. In her resignation letter, McKnight said: “I have felt over the past few months, there has been a distraction. When the focus is no longer on whom I have agreed to serve, I must control my fate.”

The school board votedunanimouslyTuesday to appoint Monique Felder as interim superintendent. Felder is a former Montgomery County teacher and administrator who most recently was superintendent of Orange County Schools in North Carolina.