This month’s bombshell Washington Post article about allegations of unchecked sexual harassment and bullying by MCPS Principal Joel Beidleman was a wake-up call for the community. However, the silence from MCPS to the broader community in the days after was all-too familiar to those who follow the system closely.
MoCo360 Note: Beidleman denied the allegations to the Post. MoCo360 has made continued unsuccessful attempts to reach Beidleman for comment.
Montgomery County’s schools have historically been a jewel of the county – a top reason for families to move here and stay here. Property values and economic development rely on the reputation of the school system. As such, MCPS must recognize that their stakeholders include far more people than teachers, administrators, parents and students. All one million plus residents of the county should be considered stakeholders.
MCPS leadership has a demonstrated history of opacity when it comes to incidents of wrongdoing. Beidleman is not the only administrator in MCPS who has been accused of wrongful acts and kept his job; indeed, many administrators who participated in past scandals still have jobs in MCPS’s central office.
For example, former Damascus High School principal Casey Crouse is currently working in MCPS’s Human Resources department as is Justine Pfeiffer, former Assistant Principal at East Silver Spring Elementary School. Crouse violated district policy by not immediately reporting rapes to county police, and Pfeiffer stood by quietly as Montgomery County police officers verbally abused a young child. MCPS appears to protect administrators perhaps with the hope that the community will forget in time.
MCPS’s response to this most recent scandal may be a tipping point for future community trust. Here are 10 suggestions for MCPS to deliver true accountability and transparency.
- Communicate regularly and directly with all system stakeholders. This includes messaging for administrators, teachers, students and families. To this point, two school communities out of 200 have received a letter from the superintendent, and a video statement was released on the website. Additional communications should include acknowledgement of the allegations, a commitment to investigate and act upon the results of the investigation, and resources for stakeholders in the interim.
- Identify and contract with a truly independent entity. It has been reported that MCPS is hiring a law firm it has worked with before. This appears to be a conflict of interest. While it may be legally permissible, this appearance of impropriety contributes to community mistrust. The Board of Education should either identify a new investigative entity that does not have a prior relationship with the system or should welcome a county or state entity to investigate.
- Clearly define the scope of the investigation. Will this investigation be limited to the allegations against Beidleman? Will it also explore the actions of central office administrators? Will it address the sexual harassment and bullying reporting processes in general? The scope is important for the community to know.
- Ensure data is used in the investigation. Investigators should pull all Maryland Safe Schools reports made with regards to a MCPS administrator or teacher over the past three to five years, and audit the results, paying close attention to any reports involving Beidleman or the two MCPS investigators named in the article. The conclusions drawn from that audit should be shared broadly.
- Engage an expert on trauma-informed interventions and communications. As the investigation and any follow-up actions related to the incident have the potential to retraumatize victims, ensuring trauma-informed expertise is present is important.
- Commit to and deliver regular public updates on the progress of the investigation and any follow-up commitments.
- Name a committee of representative stakeholders to be the first readers of the investigative report. Their responses, suggestions and questions should be considered before the report is finalized and included in the public distribution of the investigative report.
- The superintendent is required to share a quarterly report about sexual harassment and bullying complaints with the Board of Education. MCPS should immediately publish the last three to five years of these reports.
- Provide advice in clear language to administrators, teachers and parents about how to talk to children about this situation specifically and sexual harassment and bullying in general. Students around the county have been reading the articles and discussing them in their text groups, Discord channels and TikToks. Their caring adults may need resources to support their children.
- Finally, once the investigation is complete, MCPS should commit to an overhaul of the current rigidly bureaucratic reporting mechanisms. These should be replaced by a reporting system that is victim-centered, trauma-informed and intended to identify bad actors and prevent this kind of abuse from occurring in the future.
McKnight has frequently promised transparency, accountability and shared her commitment to rebuilding trust in the system. These suggestions may provide a starting point.
Brigid Nuta Howe is a Wheaton resident, nonprofit professional and community advocate. She attended Montgomery County Public Schools and is the mother of a rising seventh grader.
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