Protesters Greet Hogan, DeVos at Bethesda Elementary School

Governor addresses Rockville High rape case at joint event with U.S. Secretary of Education


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Protesters gathered outside the event featuring Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

Andrew Metcalf

As the black SUVs carrying Gov. Larry Hogan, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and their support staffs arrived at Carderock Springs Elementary School in Bethesda, more than 150 protesters followed them, chanting “Public schools are a public good!”

The protesters had gathered in advance of the Republican officials’ visit in heavily Democratic Montgomery County, where President Donald Trump received less than 20 percent of the vote.

The event featuring Trump’s cabinet member took place as the county reeled from the March 16 alleged rape at Rockville High School in which 17- and 18-year-old recent Central American immigrants have been charged with assaulting a 14-year-old girl.

DeVos addressed the incident in a written statement before she arrived at the Thursday morning event.

“As a mother of two daughters and grandmother of four young girls, my heart aches for the young woman and her family at the center of these terrible circumstances,” DeVos said. “We all have a common responsibility to ensure every student has access to a safe and nurturing learning environment.”

Inside the school, DeVos and Hogan took turns reading from Dr. Seuss’s Oh The Places You’ll Go to a group of second-graders to mark National Reading Month. After they finished, DeVos, speaking with a hushed voice, asked the students to name their favorite Dr. Seuss books.

Hogan and DeVos at the event. Credit: Andrew Metcalf

About 30 minutes after the event began, DeVos left as Hogan briefly answered questions from the press. He declined to say whether he thought the U.S. should revisit federal law to try to keep undocumented immigrants out of public schools and addressed the Rockville case.

“We’re very concerned about the incident that happened in Montgomery County,” Hogan said. “It seems to be a tragic situation. It’s an ongoing investigation. I was just speaking with the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, we’ve been in constant communication with Montgomery County police and we’re trying to get to the bottom of the facts in this case.”

Earlier this week, Hogan criticized Montgomery County Public Schools officials for not cooperating with information requests from the state’s Department of Education. MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith and Hogan spoke privately before the event, and Smith looked on as Hogan and DeVos read to the students. Hogan said he’s still seeking more information about the alleged crime.

“We don’t have all the information,” Hogan said. “We want to let everyone do their jobs. I think the school system is taking it seriously. The police are taking it seriously and obviously there’s a federal component to it that we got to pay attention to.”

Hogan also dismissed allegations from Montgomery County leaders that he was politicizing the Rockville incident by saying, “I don’t think that’s fair to say.”

Outside the school, Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner stood with the protesters and stared at Hogan and DeVos’s vehicles as they left the parking lot of the elementary school.

“I felt I should be outside with my people protesting,” Berliner said after the governor and education secretary left. “Our council just passed on Tuesday a resolution opposing the president’s budget, which cuts public education dollars. It’s one thing to be here for a photo op, but if you’re not going to stand up for public education in our community, then you’re on the wrong side of this issue.”

He also addressed Hogan’s questioning of the county school system’s cooperation in the Rockville case.

“I thought his comments were irresponsible in implying in any way shape or form that Montgomery County or our school system has not done its duty in this case,” Berliner said.

He added that federal agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Health and Human Services, had multiple contacts with the two suspects prior to their arrival in the county—details reported by The Washington Post Wednesday night.

Most of the protesters appeared to be speaking out against DeVos, who is an advocate for school choice and private school vouchers—a policy that public school advocates say would siphon tax dollars from public schools.

“We already don’t have equality in our education system and especially not in our special education system,” said Shannon Lindstrom, a Bethesda resident and special education teacher at Rockville’s Carl Sandburg Learning Center. “The school that I work at is facing massive [federal] cuts next year and with Betsy DeVos’s plan to take things to the state level, that’s just going to make things worse.”

“I’m really concerned that if the Trump Administration continues along this trend, they’re going to insist that our children learn Russian in the schools,” Bethesda resident Eric Caplan quipped.

Steven Hershkowitz, a spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association, which represents about 73,000 teachers and school employees in the state, said the protest showed that people are frustrated with policies geared toward privatizing public schools.

“Teachers are extremely frustrated with Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump and Gov. Hogan’s joint efforts to privatize Maryland’s public schools,” Hershkowitz said. “They’re actively pursuing policies that would bring in for-profit charter schools to the state that would take money from the public schools and send them to private schools. That’s taxpayer dollars that we really need for investment in our public schools.”

Others said they worried about Trump’s policies making minority students uncomfortable.

“I would say the ones most targeted are immigrant students, LGBQT students—especially trans students—and they can’t speak up for themselves,” Rosa Segura of Takoma Park said. “Because the reality is if they speak up for themselves, they’ll get harassed, they’ll get deported or their parents will get deported.”

Segura, a citizen who is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, said she detected closed-mindedness in the anti-immigrant public discourse that spread in response to the alleged rape at Rockville High.

“Rape is a terrible thing, sexual harassment is a terrible thing and I don’t wish that on anybody,” Segura said. “But the reality is you can’t categorize a group of people based upon the actions of one or two people.” 

Some Hogan supporters came out as well, holding Change Maryland signs and cheering for the governor and education secretary as they arrived.

Rockville resident Brigitta Mullican said charter schools have the ability to be more selective with the students who are admitted.

“You have to actually apply to get in, so you know you’re getting more of a cream of the crop,” Mullican said.

“Betsy DeVos is good for schools,” Poolesville resident Sharon Bauer said. “There’s going to be school choice and vouchers and more selection for students.”

Bauer, a member of the Rural Women’s Republican Club in upper Montgomery County, added that she thinks Trump “has done an excellent job” in choosing his cabinet.

Panorama of protesters outside Carderock Elementary School in Bethesda. Credit: Andrew Metcalf

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