This article was updated at 2:01 p.m. Sept. 29, 2023 to include more contact information for the Montgomery County Office of the Inspector General.
The 11 members of the Montgomery County Council pushed Montgomery County Public Schools leaders to release an investigative report into allegations of sexual misconduct by a principal and grilled Superintendent Monifa McKnight and school board President Karla Silvestre during an Education & Culture Committee hearing Thursday.
Silvestre declined to release a redacted version of law firm Jackson Lewis’ investigation into the promotion of Principal Joel Beidleman—despite him being actively investigated by MCPS on sexual misconduct accusations—and the school district’s handling of those allegations. The questioning also revealed that emails to school leaders are removed from the system after a year.
“I think that the trust in your ability to look into these matters is reliant on everything being shared—unless there is a compelling, specific legal reason why it can’t [be shared publicly],” Councilmember Andrew Friedson (Dist. 1) said to the superintendent and board president.
Throughout the nearly two-and-a-half-hour hearing, Silvestre and McKnight withstood the questions, saying they were committed to addressing and reforming the failures that were outlined in the Jackson Lewis report. McKnight also said for the first time publicly that she had no knowledge of the allegations against Beidleman.
“I want to reiterate that we understand how disturbing this situation is for all of us. Our students and staff deserve to learn and work in an environment free of harassment and intimidation. We’ve got to make this right,” Silvestre said.
The hearing comes one week after the Montgomery County inspector general launched a new set of investigations into Beidleman’s alleged misconduct and MCPS’ handling of complaints of sexual harassment.
School officials tapped Jackson Lewis to conduct the independent probe, and in August the firm sent the “extensive report” only to the school board on Sept. 9. The following week the board published a five-bullet-point summary of findings from the investigative report in a letter to county officials. Investigators found “significant and troubling failures” by MCPS leadership in regard to Beidleman’s promotion and the summary revealed that key leaders knew and failed to inquire about the pending investigations into his alleged misconduct, and later failed to notify the school board or initiate remedial action after his promotion.
Prior to the hearing, the board declined to publish the law firm’s full report, citing confidential personnel information contained within it. During the meeting Silvestre doubled down on the board’s stance that it would not release the report, even if it were redacted.
Councilmember Will Jawando (D-At-Large) and chair of the Education & Culture Committee asked Silvestre and McKnight to reconsider that decision and pushed back saying, “We [the County Council] release redacted things all the time, even if it’s completely redacted. You know, all the names can be blotted out. We’ve had to do that here at the Council on very sensitive matters related to boards under our authority as well,” he said.
After the hearing, school board member Lynne Harris told MoCo360 that if the board were to publish the report it would be “heavily redacted” to omit any information that is personally identifiable such as names, specific roles and titles. But she did not push back on the councilmembers’ pressure.
“I am not opposed to a release of the report if we are confident that it doesn’t violate any of the legal requirements to protect people’s identity and privacy,” she said.
Councilmember Kristin Mink (D-Dist. 5), who serves on the Education & Culture Committee, echoed the hope for the board to reconsider their decision. “The public may not love seeing a report that is very heavily redacted, but I still think that something is better than nothing,” she said during the hearing.
Councilmembers also questioned Silvestre and McKnight on how the school district handles anonymous complaints. The summary from Jackson Lewis uncovered that MCPS investigators routinely did not formally investigate anonymous and informal complaints from employees.
“The idea that anonymous complaints have not been taken as seriously up to this point, to me, reflects a deeply concerning culture of power dynamics,” Friedson said to officials.
The exchange revealed that emails sent to MCPS personnel, and the board are automatically removed from the system after a year. A spokesperson for MCPS confirmed that “email retention for MCPS admin, central office, principals and/or teachers is one year.” Silvestre at first said they were deleted before correcting herself to say that they are archived.
Glass read out portions of anonymous emails sent by MCPS employees to the board which detailed Beidleman’s alleged sexual harassment and asked how these emails were lost by the school system. While the Jackson Lewis report said the firm could not find evidence of two emails anonymously sent to the board with information on Beidleman’s alleged misconduct, The Post was able to obtain and review those emails and reported that one email received a reply from a MCPS labor relation official.
Friedson, Mink and Council President Evan Glass (D-At-large) requested the superintendent and board president to immediately stop the school district’s practice of archiving emails after a year. McKnight replied that the policy change “will absolutely be in conversation.”
“There were emails sent 364 days ago that will be deleted tomorrow that we now know could well include serious complaints that have not been investigated,” Mink said. “And so, even if those emails can be retrieved in some manner if it you know, we just want to make those emails as accessible and as protected as possible so that you were able to do the due diligence on those.”
The county’s Inspector General has launched its own independent investigation into the allegations of misconduct by Beidleman. General Megan Davey Limarzi said at the hearing that her office’s investigation was a unique situation because they typically do not announce investigations.
The investigation will consist of two probes: one focused on how MCPS handles allegations of misconduct against MCPS employees, and one into the allegations against Beidleman that were received since July 2023 and any previously received allegations that were not yet investigated.
Limarzi said that she was not able to comment about specifics related to the investigation or review at Thursday’s hearing but said that the investigation is underway. “What I can say this morning is that I give you and the MCPS community and the residents of our county my assurance that my office will work diligently, methodically, responsibly,” she said. “We will follow the facts, and we will report publicly on the findings of those facts.”
MCPS’ action plan
McKnight shared updates to the corrective action plan that she is developing to address the issues highlighted by the Beidleman scandal. She acknowledged the challenges that lay ahead for the school district in earning back the trust of the public, teachers, students and parents and revamping the school system’s policies. According to McKnight some of MCPS policies surrounding the selection and appointment of administrators, supervisors and interns had not been updated since 1986.
The superintendent mentioned a handful of objectives and areas of improvement that she has already begun to work on and will see further reform once the inspector general’s investigation is released.
“We’ve already started to put some things in place to address [the promotion process], particularly around the screening and vetting process,” McKnight said. She added that MCPS has created a website that lists the various methods an employee can report a complaint and added that district will continue to investigate anonymous allegations sent in by employees.
Two main areas of reform that were mentioned by McKnight are the promotion process and handling of investigations, allegations and complaints against employees.
McKnight said that much of the progress is preliminary, but she plans to dig deep specifically into new policy and regulation; the screening and approval process for applicants; updating the approval process around the superintendent’s recommendations; and reinforcing the board’s engagement around candidates so that is more frequent and done earlier in the timeline.
“We also want to make sure the Board of Education, like I as a superintendent, have confidence in the process,” McKnight added. “In which they see that all avenues have been checked and what the procedures are. So that when they raise their hands to vote for those potential appointees moving forward that they then have a vetted system that has shown a numerous amount of approvals that have been done.”
According to Silvestre, when the superintendent brings forth a candidate for promotion the entire board votes to move forward with the appointment or to object the candidate. A consensus from five out of the eight board members is needed to make a decision.
McKnight also introduced the development of the “Collaborative Community of Practice” team, that would aid the school system in developing better processes regarding promotions and handling complaints and allegations.
No details in the timeline of when these revamped policies and procedures would be implemented were provided by McKnight, but council members urged her to bring about the changes as soon as possible.
McKnight also shared that the school Climate Survey – which allows for students, staff and teachers to speak up anonymously about the environment at their school – will be implemented twice yearly. The school that Beidleman previously served as principal, William H. Farquhar Middle School, had the second-lowest score for staff leadership on the survey, according to The Washington Post’s report.
“Cultural failure” in the school system
Beidleman was slated for a promotion to principal of Paint Branch High School – which the school board had unanimously approved in June. He was placed on leave after inquiries from the Post caused the school district to place him on extended administrative leave.
Friedson highlighted that the scandal reflected not only failures of MCPS processes and procedures, but also a “longstanding cultural problem” in the school system.
“I think that starts with publicly releasing the Jackson Lewis report. You’ve heard that from others and I will reiterate that here,” Friedson said. “That report is only as good as the trust that the 25,000 educators, the 160,000 students and their families, and that the entire public has in it and people can’t trust what they can’t see, and a summary is just not sufficient.”
For now, Limarzi encouraged those who would like to speak up or share their experiences with Beidleman to call the Inspector General’s office hotline, 240-777-7644, or main phone, 240-777-8240, email, firstname.lastname@example.org, at the online complaint form, or in person at 51 Monroe Street, Suite 600.
The County Council will continue to hold more work sessions with the superintendent and the board of education to continue discussions on how MCPS is working to reform its processes and procedures and further. In May, the County Council approved $3.165 billion in funding for MCPS – 74.3 million less than what the school board initially requested – and is nearly half the county’s entire budget for next fiscal year.
Councilmember Marilyn Balcombe (D-Dist. 2) said that this incident has amplified her frustration with her role, as the County Council is tasked with and responsible for funding MCPS.
“This body is responsible for funding and CPS but we are powerless to make substantive changes within the system,” she said. “We have no details about this incident. And we’re not privy to the facts. Yet we’re called upon to blindly fund budget requests year after year without transparency and I find it very frustrating in trying to restore the public’s trust.”