Town hall brings to light MCPS’ sexual misconduct allegations

Student+leaders+and+panelists+take+viewers%27+questions+about+best+practices+in+dealing+with+sexual+misconduct.+

Photo courtesy Lily Freeman

Student leaders and panelists take viewers’ questions about best practices in dealing with sexual misconduct.

By Lily Freeman

MCPS hosted a virtual student town hall addressing its sexual misconduct prevention methods on October 13. The county held the event in response to several social media posts over the summer in which students described instances of sexual misconduct.

The forum, Let’s Talk Respect: Preventing Sexual Harassment and Assault, was the first of its kind in MCPS. Approximately 200 participants attended, said Director of Student Welfare and Compliance Greg Edmundson.

Richard Montgomery High School junior Hana O’Looney, RMHS senior Brian Rose and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School junior Allyson Bennett facilitated three rounds of panel discussions about the best practices for dealing with sexual misconduct. Panelists included staff from the MCPS Central Office, MCPS health, athletics and equity specialists and representatives from the police department and other local crisis-response organizations. O’Looney, Rose and Bennett asked county officials a number of questions that audience members submitted prior to the town hall.

MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith helped introduce the forum by acknowledging the social media allegations, which he said were being “thoroughly investigated.”

“Montgomery County Public Schools is committed to the safety and well-being of all students,” Smith said in a pre-recorded message. “Together, our entire MCPS community shares responsibility in creating a culture of respect and maintaining a safe and welcoming learning environment.” 

In June, students began reporting to MCPS that their peers were using social media platforms to allege instances of sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment to sexual assault, Edmundson said. In response, the school system created four teams Investigations, Communications, Student Support and Legal Support to look into the allegations. Over 350 claims have been investigated so far, and the school system has alerted police when they identified alleged perpetrators or victims, said MCPS Director of School Safety and Security Ed Clarke.

“The allegations were very serious,” Edmundson said. “Immediately, we were alarmed; we were concerned.”

Edmundson later added that the school system found some of the claims to be false, noting that students need to treat the topic seriously. Most alleged occurrences took place outside of schools, Edmundson said.

MCPS officials are in the “final stages” of putting together a training module, “Culture of Respect,” Edmundson said. This will become a countywide educational tool that will be used in middle and high schools. Students will complete the Culture of Respect course through MyMCPS Classroom to learn how to recognize and report sexual misconduct. Students will also use the module to provide input about their experiences, hopefully helping schools address issues better in the future, Edmundson said.

During the panel discussions, speakers highlighted MCPS’s desire to listen to students and encouraged community members to speak out if someone they knew was mistreated.

“Anybody that comes forward should be believed,” said MCPS Health and Physical Education Supervisor Cara Grant. “It’s not our role to decide if ‘I believe you or I believe somebody else.’ If it is your belief that you were offended, hurt or harmed; if it is your perception that you were harassed, then you need to elevate that.”

Everyone has a role to play in ensuring sexual misconduct is properly dealt with, Grant added.

Though viewers were muted during the town hall, a number of audience members remained undeterred in sharing their own sexual harassment experiences. Some used the Q&A feature of the event to express their frustration about schools’ responses in the past.

“I had to leave my school because my school refused to help me, and now I’m watching my new school do the same things to other girls that my old school did to me,” one anonymous commenter wrote. “It’s infuriating that there are no investigations.”

Deputy Superintendent Monifa McKnight emphasized that MCPS was committed to cultivating a culture of respect and bringing harmful acts to light.

“It is extremely important to us that you report any behavior that makes you uncomfortable so that we can do something about it,” McKnight said. “Every adult in the school system is absolutely responsible for keeping you safe.”