Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) officials announced sweeping changes to administrative procedures and staff training designed to protect students from incidences of abuse and neglect in the wake of a former school aide being sentenced to 100-years in prison for multiple counts of child sex abuse. School leaders say the changes have substantially reduced the number of employees on administrative leave and strengthened overall school safety.

During the 2016-17 school year, nearly 850 staff members – including 419 teachers – were placed on leave pending investigations into alleged neglect, child abuse, or failure to report, according to a news release from the school system. This reflected a more than 1,000 percent increase from the previous school year. As of Oct. 6, 40 staff members, including 21 teachers, were still on leave for abuse-related allegations. However, only five of these incidents stem from confrontations that occurred since school began on Sept. 6.

At the beginning of the current school year, the county’s public schools began implementing three new student safety administrative procedures. Additionally, six existing policies were revised and at least 90 percent of the staff have completed SafeSchools training modules.

“We remain committed to improving school and student safety while providing a positive workplace climate for our employees,” said CEO Kevin M. Maxwell in a statement. “We must continue to do all that we can to encourage safe environments where students can focus on learning and staff feel supported.”

PGCPS made national news after Deonte Carraway, a former school aide, was arrested in 2016 after accusations he molested children and recorded pornography at Judge Sylvania Woods Elementary School in Glenarden, Md. In August of this year, he was charged with 23 counts of child sex abuse. He was convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison. The school system, which is the second largest in Maryland, was also sent reeling in 2016 when police arrested a 66-year-old DuVal High School teacher on second-degree assault charges and soliciting sex from a teen.

Employee interaction with students became a hot-button issue after Carraway’s arrest. PGCPS formed a student safety task force designed to eliminate a culture of silence that officials believe caused cases of neglect or abuse to be underreported. The task force is comprised of representatives from non-profits, private sector, county government, public safety and higher education.

Some Prince George’s County teachers say the new procedures are too coercive and teachers are harshly disciplined even for minor offenses. Doris Reed, president of the Association of Supervisory and Administrative School Personnel, told WUSA9 both principals and teachers have been placed on leave and investigated for accidentally “bumping” into students in hallways crammed with bustling students. Similarly, Reed said a teacher was removed from the classroom for using the word, “asinine.”

The AFRO spoke with a county school counselor to gauge her assessment of the more stringent leave policies instituted after Carraway’s arrest. The counselor, who has been part of the school system for 18 years, agreed to speak on condition of anonymity due to concerns of retaliation from the school district.

“I believe we are being more reactive than proactive. As far as intensive training – not. We are having to sit through several hours of videos on our own time,” the counselor said. “This is the county’s idea of training. What it is, is a waste of time. In short, I believe it is overacting. Yes, there are a few bad apples but now all of us are guilty until proven innocent, which sometimes takes almost a full school year to prove.”

A Prince George’s County teacher, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the rigid leave policy is harming teachers’ optimism about their jobs. She has taught in the school system for three years. “Morale is definitely low. We walk on eggshells because any little thing can cause us to go out on leave. We feel like everyone is against us,” the teacher said. “To me, it’s all like smoke and mirrors to make it seem like they care. The only reason teachers stay is because we love the kids.”