This story, which was originally published at 7 a.m. on Aug. 16, was updated at 9:42 a.m. on Aug. 17 to include comment from the Maryland Office of the Inspector General for Education.
The superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools promised “open communication” and “active listening” in a letter to the Farquhar school community as an investigation begins into sexual harassment claims against principal Joel Beidleman.
That independent investigation will be conducted by a law firm that has previously worked with the district, for total billings of at least $110,000 in recent years. Community members on Tuesday blasted the law firm selection and other aspects of MCPS’ response. County Executive Marc Elrich (D) also said he and the County Council have little oversight of — and a strained relationship with — the school administration, and suggested the state inspector general step in.
McKnight told Farquhar students, staff and families she was “concerned on multiple levels” by the 18 reports of workplace abuse and harassment made against Beidleman uncovered by Washington Post reporters. Beidleman most recently served as Farquhar Middle School’s principal, having previously held leadership positions at Roberto Clemente and Lakelands Park middle schools. He was slated for a promotion to oversee Paint Branch High School before being placed on administrative leave following inquiries from The Post.
Beidleman has repeatedly denied the allegations against him. MoCo360 has made unsuccessful attempts to contact him for comment.
On Monday, the school district announced its selection of Jackson Lewis–a Baltimore law firm with expertise in education and employment law–to investigate the claims against Beidleman and the district’s handling of those claims.
Despite the district’s emphasis on the imperative “independent” nature of the investigation, data from the MCPS office of Funding Accountability and Transparency shows the district paying Jackson Lewis $48,693 in fiscal year 2023 and $61,981 the previous year. The data was last updated in June, according to the MCPS website.
Board of Education documents show Jackson Lewis attorneys sitting through a closed October 2021 session of the board. The same year, court documents list Jackson Lewis’ Donald English Jr. defending the board in a lawsuit filed against them over the district’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate–a case that was later dismissed.
Bethesda-based licensed clinical social worker Jennifer Gross specializes in the field of child abuse and neglect and has conducted sexual harassment and abuse prevention trainings on a national level. Gross expressed extreme skepticism about the school district’s hiring of Jackson Lewis to conduct the investigation into itself and Beidleman.
MCPS has highlighted the firm’s specialty in education and employment law, to which Gross asked, “What the hell does employment law have to do with sexual harassment and child abuse?”
“This principal was making lewd, sexual comments to children,” Gross said, in reference to allegations that Beidleman described middle school girls dressing and acting “like hoes and thots” during two 2018 Farquhar assemblies. “This move is akin to telling someone who has a broken leg to go see a dermatologist. Why? Because a dermatologist won’t know what they’re looking for, so who’s going to come out looking rosy on the other side?”
Dawn Iannaco-Hahn, who ran for election to the board of education in 2022 and is parent to a rising seventh grader at Farquhar, expressed similar skepticism to MCPS’ investigation.
“You know, like, one whole day passed by and already it’s like: Oh, look at that–they were lying. This isn’t an investigation that’s independent at all,” she said in an interview Tuesday.
MoCo360 made unsuccessful attempts to reach Jackson Lewis’ Baltimore offices for comment on the investigation Tuesday.
When the Washington Post’s article about Beidleman’s alleged abuses was published, Iannaco-Hahn was in the car with her son who was chatting with friends on FaceTime when he suddenly told her, “Mom, Dr. Beidleman is in big trouble,” she recalled.
Iannaco-Hahn asked her son to read the article while she drove and said her son was upset and very surprised. She added that he told her Beidleman “was a good principal” and “was really nice to us.”
In response, she said, “Well, principals can be good to the students and be evil to their staff. And students wouldn’t know about that–at least, you would hope that students wouldn’t know about that.”
In her letter to Farquhar families, McKnight emphasized the need for objectivity in the Beidleman investigation being conducted by Jackson Lewis.
“The scope of these allegations necessitates swift action to independently and objectively investigate, to gather ALL of the information, and then to take the appropriate actions to ensure that any issues are promptly addressed, adhering to policies,” her letter reads.
McKnight acknowledged that community trust “may have been compromised” by the allegations made against Beidleman and said she is committed to working diligently to rebuild that trust, including by prioritizing “open communication, active listening and taking appropriate actions to address concerns.”
“Thank you for your support and your trust that we will take the appropriate actions to ensure that any issues are promptly rectified,” her letter concluded. “Please know we are here for you.”
Paint Branch parent and former PTA president Carolyn Parker characterized McKnight’s response as “completely tone deaf to this situation.” Parker referenced a meeting with principals and administrators Monday morning where, attendees told The Post, McKnight encouraged the crowd to stand and chant “MCPS proud! MCPS proud!”
Parker expressed disappointment with MCPS administrators and felt the school district “failed our students, teachers and communities.” She told MoCo360 John Vigna, a former MCPS teacher who was convicted of sexually abusing students in 2017, taught her daughter – now a rising senior at Paint Branch – and wished MCPS had been more transparent.
In July, Vigna’s convictions were vacated when he was granted a new trial after he filed for post-conviction relief claiming his attorney made mistakes that impacted the outcome of his trial.
The County Council’s Education and Culture Committee–chaired by Councilmember Will Jawando (D-At-large)–has committed to conducting a session on MCPS oversight following the conclusion of the investigation, according to Jawando’s chief of staff.
Asked about the investigation, Elrich said he and the County Council “don’t have a truly collaborative, interactive relationship” with the MCPS administration, adding that it “would be nice” if the Maryland Office of the Inspector General were to step into the investigation to provide neutral oversight.
“We’re powerless,” he said of the county government in relation to the school district. “We’re sort of like a money machine.”
Richard Henry, the Maryland Inspector General for Education, told MoCo360 in an email Wednesday that his office does not discuss the existence of a complaint or investigation, and that is has been the office’s practice to first counsel with the Montgomery County Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on any matter involving MCPS.
The OIG has declined to comment on the investigation.
The district reportedly sought an investigation by the county inspector general, but the inspector general’s office this week declined to comment on any potential probe.
MoCo360 politics and enterprise reporter Ginny Bixby contributed to this article.