Lawyers have agreed to postpone the trial of a Millersville Elementary School teacher charged with assault and battery, while the state's attorney's office attempts to resolve the case through mediation.
Assistant State's Attorney R. David Fordham, chief of the District Court Division, said both sides agreed Friday to the postponement so that his office's mediation unit could work on an out-of-court resolution, in which case charges against 57-year-old Margaret M. Snyder of Annapolis would likely be dropped.
Mrs. Snyder, a teacher at Millersville Elementary for more than two decades, was charged with assaulting three fourth-grade students in her classroom in March and June.
Charging documents reported the children, in separate incidents, were scratched or fingernail marks were made on their arms, stomachs or chests as the teacher moved them bodily either into line or into chairs.
"My concern is mostly for the young children," Mr. Fordham said. "I hate to expose them to a court proceeding if I don't have to."
Thomas C. Morrow, Mrs. Snyder's lawyer, said his client favors mediation over a trial. But failing that, he said, he will attempt to have the case dropped.
"This is clearly not a criminal case," he said. "It reads like a typical day in the fourth grade to me."
Mr. Morrow believes the teacher used "a reasonable amount of discipline" to keep order in her classroom during the incidents referred to in the case. Although the charging documents did not reveal specifics, he said the children were having spitball fights. Parents deny their children were misbehaving.
Mr. Morrow believes his client was charged because "there was a lot of parental pressure put on police." If parents had not overreacted to the incidents, he said, charges probably would not have been brought.
"Parents might not realize what a teacher is allowed to do to keep order in the classroom," he said.
But parents say their reaction was far from overblown. During a series of meetings called after the allegations were made public, many said Mrs. Snyder has a history of physically and verbally abusing children. The charges brought, they said, pointed to only a small part of the problem.
"No one has even addressed the woefully inadequate educational program [in her classroom] or the obscenities used," said Kathleen Draego, who said her daughter was treated roughly and called names by the teacher last school year. Mrs. Draego's daughter is not one of the three students named in charging documents.
Mrs. Snyder has been on paid administrative leave since June, when the charges were filed, said Mr. Morrow. She intends to return to teaching if the case is resolved in her favor.
"She's been teaching 22 years and has three years to retirement," he said. "She's not even remotely considering retiring or not returning to teaching."
School officials have declined to comment on the case or whether Mrs. Snyder would return to the classroom. However, school spokeswoman Nancy Jane Adams said Friday that if a teacher is placed on leave pending a criminal case and the charges are later dropped, it does not mean the teacher automatically will be returned to the classroom.
"The criminal case is a totally separate matter," she said. "Our decision is based on a number of things, such as whether there was inappropriate behavior."
No decision has been made in the Snyder case, she said.
Suzanne Young, a mediator with the state's attorney's office, said she is trying to contact all parties involved to schedule mediation. So far, the one family she has been able to contact has agreed. She hopes to contact the other two families by the end of next week.
If all parties agree to participate, the matter could be resolved within the next two weeks, she said.
It's hard to predict what type of agreement would be reached, she said, but it's conceiveable parents would agree to drop charges if the defendant vowed to act in ways acceptable to all parties. Should subsequent actions violate the agreement, criminal charges could be reinstated, she said.
"We try to resolve the problem so it won't happen again," she said, adding that she most often works on family disputes and arguments between neighbors. Charges against teachers are not often mediated through her office.
If all parties are not satisfied with the outcome, she said, the agreement is not binding. Parents could choose to pursue criminal charges after the mediation process, she said.
The move toward mediation and the way the case has been handled by school officials has left some Millersville parents disillusioned with the system -- a system they thought was established to protect their children and provide a non-hostile learning environment.
"A number of parents have certainly expressed their dismay," said Diane Osborn, a parent and PTA member.
"The parents have absolutely no say about what goes on in the schools," said Joe Draego. "We pay for it, but we have no control over what goes on there -- the quality of the programs, who teaches our kids, nothing."