- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

Is it possible that D.C. public school officials allowed a sexual predator to roam the school halls in search of easy prey?

John Thomas Jones, 37, sits in jail after his arrest two weeks ago on charges of first-degree child sex abuse reportedly involving a two-year sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student at Ballou High School, where he was an attendance counselor, educational aide and school security aide.

During his sporadic eight years with the school system, Mr. Jones was tried but acquitted by a hung jury on a 1996 rape charge. Two separate accusations reportedly were made against him by students, one earlier in this school year. None of this could have been used to prevent Mr. Jones’ access to students because school officials contend D.C. law prohibits them from excluding anyone from employment who has not been convicted of a crime, though they may have been charged with one.

“There was not information we could use to keep him from employment,” said Ralph Neal, assistant superintendent, while standing before television cameras.

Come again? Do school officials mean to say that Mr. Jones’ less-than-stellar credentials were the top of their applicant pool at the time? That weak line is seriously suspect. They’ve got to do better.

Everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but this man was not accused of petty theft; he was accused of rape and sexual harassment. That Mr. Jones was placed on the security detail is laughable, but that he was assigned as a counselor — or confidant to troubled teens — is idiotic and unconscionable.

Whatever happened to using common sense?

Superintendent Paul Vance issued a terse statement calling for “frontier justice” in such cases, adding that anyone who abuses his or her responsibility to students “should be tarred and feathered.” Not good enough.

Mr. Vance said hiring regulations should be revised. D.C. Council Member Kevin Chavous, chairman of the Committee on Public Education, Recreation and Libraries, pledges to rewrite the law to amend this hiring loophole “so it cannot be used as an excuse.” Not soon enough.

Mr. Jones is not the only teacher or school staffer accused of abusing students in recent years.

In case anyone bothered to look, the District of Columbia Public Schools has a written sexual harassment policy that addresses what Mr. Vance called an “imperative” issue. It should be copied and circulated today to every staffer and student in the school system to which it applies.

Two summers ago, I wrote about a citywide teen group called the Young Women’s Project. They held a daylong seminar — “Flirtin’ or Hurtin’: What Is and What to Do about Sexual Harassment” — at the Martin Luther King Library as part of their push to make the school system adopt the written sexual harassment policy.

Yesterday, Valian Walker, associate of the teen-led projects of the group, said the policy was adopted in July 2002. Although the school system has been supportive, the policy’s implementation and its enforcement have come slowly. Ms. Walker said the school board established a task force on the issue but they meet only twice this winter because of the bad weather. So the Young Women’s Project went ahead with a Saturday training session for its teen members. Subsequently, some of them who wanted to do something this school year held sexual harassment sessions at the five high schools they attend. Ballou was not one of them.

In cooperation with the principal and teachers at Wilson High School, the project members held a sexual harassment training seminar for 1,400 students during social studies classes in May at a cost of $8,000. This program should be extended to every city high school and some middle schools.

“We got a lot of good feedback because it was the first time actual students took an actual problem into their own hands to fix it,” Ms. Walker said.

She also pointed out that during these sessions they field a lot of “what if” questions from students wanting to know how they go about reporting a teacher or a principal.

“It made us think there is a lot of harassment,” she said. The group intends to compile its most recent findings in a report to be given to the school board and superintendent this summer. Based on the responses of a summer 2000 survey of 213 students conducted by the Young Women’s Project, 84 percent of students have experienced sexual harassment in school by another student, and 25 percent have been sexually harassed by a teacher or staff member.

But 66 percent of the respondents did not know whether their school had a sexual harassment policy, and 57.5 percent of them reported that they did not know how to get information on sexual harassment, the survey showed.

The Young Women’s Project is a multicultural group that “builds and supports teen women and girl leaders so that they can improve their own lives and transform their communities.” The majority of the teens are either black or Latino and attend Cardozo, Anacostia, Bell Multicultural, Dunbar and Wilson high schools.

Besides a specific written policy, the young women said DCPS should have a sexual harassment coordinator at each school who could deal with student’s questions, concerns or complaints to be in compliance with Title IX rules. Such a presence may have saved the Ballou student from harassment.

Judging from this latest sexual harassment charges and surveys and sessions conducted by the Young Women’s Project, D.C. educators have a serious safety issue on their hands that must be fully investigated and stopped immediately. No excuses allowed.

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