Eric Luedtke, Maryland House of Delegates
As a teacher, I believe there is no professional obligation more central to my job than keeping my students healthy and safe. Before we teach our kids math, or science, or reading, they need to know that the schools they attend are places where they will not be harmed. The leaders of Maryland’s top-notch education community share this view, and have worked hard to ensure that schools are places of sanctuary for kids. And for the vast majority of students across Maryland, we have been able to create safe school environments. As a result, sexual abuse and assault are relatively uncommon in educational settings compared to elsewhere in our society. But any incident that happens is one too many, and there is more to do as we work to keep our kids safe.
This fall, two cases came to light in Montgomery County where adults, in one case a substitute teacher and in the other a contractor installing security systems, inappropriately touched students. As a result of these cases, Montgomery County Public Schools, under the leadership of Superintendent Joshua Starr, has begun a top to bottom review of policies governing how schools prevent and respond to abuse. The steps the school system is taking are good ones, and promise to make Montgomery County’s students safer. But these cases revealed a number of weaknesses in our state laws that we need to address.
Like many government agencies, our school systems have come to rely more and more on the work of contractors to take care of highly specialized needs related to maintenance of school buildings. These contractors often have access to school buildings while students are present. But unlike other school staff, our state laws do not require contractors to undergo criminal background checks prior to entering school buildings. They should, at least in cases where these employees will have access to kids.
The cases this autumn also highlighted the importance of good communication between schools and the communities they serve. There is currently no state law requiring that information be shared with a school community after an abuse incident. But good communication is important for a number of reasons. It may provide the impetus for other victims to come forward. It helps prevent the student rumor mill from spreading misinformation and gives parents an opportunity to talk with their children about the issue. And it reassures parents and staff that appropriate steps have been taken to deal with the situation. There need to be caveats, of course. Communication about such an incident should never identify victims, and should be delayed if law enforcement believes it will interfere with an ongoing investigation. But we should make clear in our laws that schools need to clearly and openly engage with their communities when incidents happen.
Finally, these incidents raise the question of whether Maryland should be more proactive in making sexual abuse and assault awareness and prevention a part of our health education curriculum. Such education, dubbed Erin’s Law in honor of victim’s advocate Erin Merryn, has been made a part of schooling in a number of states. It can be done in an age-appropriate way, and would empower Maryland’s children with strategies if they become victims of abuse. While the legislature does not and should not dictate details of curriculum, we have clearly stated in our laws general topics for health education curricula. We should do so with this issue as well.
As is so often the case, our schools are on the front lines of dealing with a deep societal challenge. Maryland’s leaders are proud that our schools are the best in America - we should ensure that they are the safest as well.