Despite a tearful plea for mercy, Ronald Walter Price was sentenced to 26 years in jail yesterday for having sex with his students by a judge who blasted his lack of remorse, his betrayal of the public's trust and his "having sex all over a public institution."
Price, wearing blue jeans and a white rosary around his neck, showed no emotion as the sentence was pronounced. But his wife, Patricia Price, seated two rows behind him in the packed courtroom, put her head on her mother's shoulder and sobbed quietly.
The sentence closed one chapter in a case that has put Anne Arundel County in an unwelcome national spotlight, thanks largely to Price's appearances on "Geraldo!" and "A Current Affair." It also has dramatically affected county schools, possibly bringing to an inglorious end the 38-year career of School Superintendent C. Berry Carter II, who has been suspended pending an investigation into his handling of sexual abuse allegations against teachers.
In addition to the jail time, Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Eugene M. Lerner also ordered Price to serve five years' probation. When released, Price was ordered never to work with children again, to have no contact with the three victims or their families and to perform 1,000 hours of community service.
But the judge said he would consider reducing the sentence if the 48-year-old former social studies teacher at Northeast High School in Pasadena shows remorse and provides police with names of other teachers who had sex with students.
Judge Lerner said he was exceeding state sentencing guidelines -- which called for a 12-year sentence -- because Price failed to take responsibility for his actions.
"You've blamed the victims, the Board of Education, the parents of these youngsters. You've blamed everybody but yourself," Judge Lerner said. "You had sex all over a public institution. It's almost unbelievable."
He lambasted Price for robbing "these children of their high school experience," betraying the public's trust in teachers and bringing shame on the school system the judge said he attended as a youth.
Before the sentence was pronounced, Price told Judge Lerner he loved teaching and was sorry for his crimes. He also claimed that hiscase is the tip of an iceberg that involves numerous teachers having sex with students and said that he performed a valuable service by putting a spotlight on the issue. "If anything positive was going to come of what I did, it was imperative that people knew what went on," he said, wiping tears from his face.
Price will be given credit for time served since April 19, when he was arrested and began awaiting trial under house arrest at his Brooklyn Park home. He will be eligible for parole after serving one-quarter of his sentence, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Parole and Probation.
Assistant State's Attorney William Mulford II had asked for the maximum 56 years, but called Judge Lerner's sentence "excellent."
"I think it will accomplish a number of goals. First, it will punish Mr. Price. Second, it will serve as a deterrent. And third, it encourages Mr. Price to come forward with what he might know about other teachers," Mr. Mulford said.
Price's attorney, Timothy Umbreit, said his client intends to provide names of teachers who had relations with students. He said that Price has names of at least two other teachers he suspects.
"He has a great incentive to cooperate," Mr. Umbreit said.
'I need him to come home'
Price, looking tired and sporting a gray beard similar to the one he shaved before his trial last month, broke into tears twice during the two-hour sentencing -- once as his wife took the stand to testify and again when it was his turn to speak moments later.
"It's easy for even the best-intentioned teacher to fall into a trap, a trap like mine," he said.
Mrs. Price, in a voice choked with emotion, testified that she was at first angry and disappointed with her husband but that she still loves him and needs him.
"I need him to come home more than anything in the world. I need him to come home," said Mrs. Price, one of two women Price married after having sex with them as students at Northeast.
Dr. Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist and a professor at Johns Hopkins Hospital and one of two therapists to testify for Price, said he has a "tunnel vision" that allowed him to place sexual gratification before considering any harm the victims might have suffered.
"Mr. Price is clearly someone who has not managed his sex drive very well," Dr. Berlin said.
Price was convicted by a jury on three counts of child abuse Sept. 9. During the two-day trial, the raspy-voiced defendant admitted to having sex with his victims, who ranged in age from 14 to 17.
Prior to trial, he also admitted his crimes on national television, a strategy widely criticized by criminal defense lawyers and one that put the case in a national spotlight.
"From the beginning, Ron Price felt that he had a story that had to be told. Now he'll be telling it to police," Mr. Umbreit said.
In addition to Mr. Carter's suspension, the case prompted a state investigation into the system's handling of child abuse, abuse charges against two other teachers and a dramatic increase in complaints of abuse reported to authorities.
Pam Smelser, a child protective services supervisor with the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services, said the number of investigations for child maltreatment countywide increased from 221 in September 1992 to 325 last month.
Reports of in-school abuse increased to 37 percent of the department's caseload in September 1993, compared with 18 percent of the caseload a year earlier, she said.
Two other Northeast High School teachers have been charged with child abuse. The trial for Laurie Cook, 33, of Catonsville is scheduled to begin Nov. 23. The trial for 30-year-old Charles Yocum of Glen Burnie is set for Dec. 2.
Reaction to sentence
Price's victims were not available to comment yesterday, but school officials and advocates for child abuse victims praised the sentence.
"I think both the judge and the prosecutor served this county well in this case," said Thomas Twombly, county school board president. He called the judge's sentence "absolutely brilliant."
School board member Jo Ann Tollenger said letting Price out of prison early in exchange for his help with other child abuse cases may be a trade-off. But the benefits would outweigh the costs, she said.
"He gets his sentence reduced. But in exchange for that we are getting people away from children who don't belong there," she said.
But Carolyn Roeding, president of the Anne Arundel County Council of PTAs, said she wished the sentence were stiffer. She does not think Price should have any opportunity for a sentence reduction.
"If you look at the guidelines and the sentence he received, it sends a message, and that's important. But the parent in me says that he should have gotten the maximum," said Mrs. Roeding, who has two daughters at Northeast.