By Kevin O’Rourke
Parents of students at Roberto Clemente Middle School remain outraged at school administrators for waiting over three weeks to inform them of the arrest of a substitute teacher on sexual abuse charges related to an incident that happened at the school.
Roberto Clemente Principal Khadija Barkley apologized for not informing parents sooner in the letter which also served to inform parents about the incident.
On Friday, Nov. 7, parents of Roberto Clemente Middle School students received a letter and an MCPS Connect-Ed phone call stating that on Sept. 30, a substitute teacher, Jose Pineda, 50, of Gaithersburg, was accused of making the inappropriate contact with a 12-year-old female student. Pineda was arrested by Montgomery County Police on Oct. 14 on charges related to this incident.
Parents were informed 38 days after the incident occurred and 25 days after Pineda was arrested by MCPD.
“I am not happy,” said Darren Basore, a Roberto Clemente parent. “It appears the school is hiding something. The school waited entirely too long, we should have been notified the day the teacher was arrested.”
Kelly Meredith, the mother of an eighth grader at Roberto Clemente and former member of the schools PTSA board said, “My experience with RCMS is that information is not given to the correct people in a timely fashion. I understand the need for the school to gather all of the facts but in our social media/ smart phone world, the community tends to find out misinformation before the school can even have time to formulate a response.”
Meredith pointed out a pepper spray incident at the school in the spring of 2013 was also a situation where Roberto Clemente administrators did not inform parents in a timely fashion. “When my son was in class in 6th grade, the school was evacuated for a possible gas leak, in actuality it was a pepper spray incident. I had to hear from my son that it was in his class, he was checked by EMT's, and questioned several times, but I never got a call from school. I was told later that it was an oversight. I am hopeful in this new case that the school has gotten better and all parents have been contacted whose children had this teacher but my guess is no. MCPS and RCMS need to be faster to release information,” said Meredith.
Some parents are questioning the judgment of administrators, “I understand the need to wait for a complete investigation before sharing details,” said Courtney Davenport, mother of a seventh grader at Roberto Clemente, “but the principal should have informed parents as soon as she could. When there was a tiny mercury spill in a classroom, they told us that day, but they wait weeks to tell us about the sexual assault of a student?”
Other parents agree. “If the fire alarm activated for any reason, we get a Connect-Ed message that same day, even when nobody gets hurt,” said Grisel Burgos, a sixth-grade parent at Roberto Clemente, “How come something so important was hidden from us for so long? What else hasn't the school told us about?”
Revonne Johnson, president of Roberto Clemente Middle School Parent Student Teacher Association said the PTSA has called an executive board meeting with Principal Barkley for Saturday to discuss this incident, the schools response, and any next steps which might be necessary.
Johnson said she does not find fault with the way RCMS administrators handled the situation when the incident happened. “Mrs. Barkley and the school administrators did everything that they were legally supposed to do,” said Johnson. “The child was safe, the teacher was escorted off the premises. They contacted the correct officials, as they are supposed do. Everything that should have been done was done. No other student was at risk.”
Johnson says that she understands how other parents feel about this situation, but said Clemente parents should trust Barkley’s judgment. “It can be a very sensitive situation. We have to take into account the needs of the family that is in the situation. These decision are often made in the best interest of the family, sometimes it requires communicating the information out and sometimes not. It is a judgment call that the principal has to make. I trust her judgment. I feel that the right thing was done. The student’s safety and education was preserved. The student is back in the student body and normal student life and that should be the goal.”
Johnson says that she was notified of the incident by Principal Barkley, the day it happened. “We work as partnership, so when the incident occurred she contacted me. By policy she doesn’t have to communicate these incidents to parents. It is left to the discretion of the principal because every situation is different and she has to make that judgment call.” Other PTSA board members were not notified.
She explained that if something happens at the school she is notified by the administration so that she is not blindsided if approached by a parent. “If these incidents happen it is not my role as PTSA president to communicate that to other parents. Mrs. Barkley will let me know when I need to, or when I can communicate the information to other board members.”
Susan Burkinshaw, co-chair of the health and safety committee of the countywide MCCPTA said, “I think systemically MCPS has a tendency to not want to share information to protect the reputation of the schools and the school system. I think in the communities where the PTAs have developed a very strong relationship with the principals that can be overcome.”
Burkinshaw, who has been involved with PTAs at both, the local and cluster level for more than ten years, but not directly with Roberto Clemente Middle School, said, “I have always argued that schools should at least, send something out saying there has been a serious incident, and they can’t share information for privacy reasons, but it is being handled by the proper authorities. Make that your statement so that the word gets out that something happened, so when the kids are talking about the fight that broke out at school, or the teacher that is not there anymore, parents know that there is something that is being addressed and not swept under the rug.”
The incident at Roberto Clemente comes a few days after parents at John T. Baker Middle School in Damascus were outraged that they were not notified of an MCPS contractor being accused of sexual abuse until three weeks later.
MCPS plans to review the procedures for informing parents of serious incidents at schools according a schools system spokesperson. “We should have informed the community earlier about this arrest but we made a mistake and did not,” said Gboyinde Onijala, senior communications specialist with MCPS.” We will review our procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not happen again.”
According to reports, the review will include a mandatory meeting of principals and Superintendent Joshua Starr sometime next week.
According to MCPS regulations for Reporting a Serious Incident, of which “serious abuse or assault (physical/sexual) of any person” is included, state that, “Whenever the principal/director or designee perceives that a serious incident threatens the health, safety, or security of students, or staff or there is the likelihood of community concern about the incident the principal/director or designee, in consultation with the appropriate MCPS office, may release information about the incident to parents, staff, and students.”
These regulations, which were most recently revised on Sept. 5, 2014 come from the Office of School Support and Improvement (OSSI) which is headed by Deputy Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Stathem.
However some parents, like Burgos believe that if the parents in the Damascus incident did not express their outrage over the delay in notification, parents at Roberto Clemente would never have been notified about the sex abuse incident at that school.
”If we didn’t hear about the other middle school incident in the news and the reaction that it got, we would have not heard what happened in Roberto Clemente on Sept. 30. We should be informed as soon as possible when an incident of this magnitude happens,” said Burgos.
Burkinshaw agrees, “My impression is that principals don’t act without direction from the OSSI,” she said. “My sense is that somebody at OSSI initially said we don’t need to share that, and now OSSI is doing a little back peddling. If (the Baker Middle School) community had not been so up in arms about it, the incident at Roberto Clemente would not have been disclosed to parents.”
The alleged abuser in this case, Jose Pineda, has been charged with two counts of sex offense; Sex Abuse of a Minor and Sexual Offense in the Third Degree. According to reports, court documents allege Pineda first reached around the 12-year-old girl and touched her behind, then walked by four to five times and squeezed her legs and bottom.
If convicted on both counts, he could face 35 years in prison. Pineda is free on bond $50,000 bond and is scheduled to appear in Montgomery County District Court in Rockville on Nov. 14, and will be represented by Rockville-based attorney Paul R. Wiesenfeld, who refused comment on the case.
Burkinshaw worries that the long delay before informing the community could allow other incidents to go unreported. “My concern is that if you wait almost 30 days, you have someone that could be a repeat offender and has had contact with multiple students, and many of the kids recognize the behavior inappropriate and uncomfortable but they don’t recognize it as something that they should report or share with adults,” said Burkinshaw. “If you wait 30 days the kids may not remember that this guy did something that was a creepy 30 days ago.”
In the letter to parents Roberto Clement Middle School Principal Khadija Barkley apologized for not informing parents sooner.
“I want to apologize for not sending a letter to the community earlier, but I want to assure you that Roberto Clemente Middle School took swift action in collaboration with the Montgomery County Police and the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Department of School Safety and Security to investigate the incident. As soon as the allegation was raised, the teacher was subsequently removed from the classroom and has not worked in any other MCPS school since.”
“At the time of the incident,” the letter from Barkley to parents went on, “in consultation with the police, security personnel, and the MCPS Office of School Support and Improvement, I made the decision to not send a letter to the community while the investigation was ongoing. As the principal, the safety and security of all students and staff is my responsibility and I am confident we acted swiftly to ensure this incident was investigated and our students supported. However, it also important that I communicate with you in a timely manner about such incidents. Once we were informed that an arrest had been made, I should have notified you and I apologize again for not sharing this information with you sooner.”
Johnson, is a sixth-grade parent at Clemente and is in her first term as president of the RCMS PTSA. She is hoping to increase membership. She said the Clemente PTSA is “moderately active” with 351 members serving a school with 1,147 students. Her goal is to have over 400 members by the end of this year. “I would encourage any parent who is unhappy as a result of this situation to become more involved with the PTSA.”
When asked to go on record for this article, Principal Barkley said she was not allowed to comment.