The suspension of a Harford County middle school teacher because of his allegedly inappropriate behavior toward eighth-grade girls has parents demanding answers from tight-lipped school authorities and asking the school board to reconsider its policy for handling such incidents, said the county PTA president.
Andre Fournier, president of the Harford County Council of PTAs, said Thursday that the matter initially was handled quickly and decisively but that the PTA should have been informed of the action.
After parents of four Magnolia Middle School students brought allegations Oct. 27 to Marilyn E. Owen, principal of Magnolia Middle School, Richard N. Banz, a 26-year-old seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher, was suspended with pay.
"Considering the nature of the allegations, the principal and school board had to get [him] out of the learning environment," Mr. Fournier said.
Mr. Fournier did not learn of the suspension until three days later, however, when Louise McCall, president of the Magnolia Middle School PTA, called him to complain that she had just learned of the teacher's suspension on a morning television newscast.
"I was very angry to find out about it that way," said Mrs. McCall Wednesday.
"We're supposed to be the liaison between teachers and parents," said Mr. Fournier. "How can we be that when school authorities don't tell us what has happened?"
While parents and teachers had questions that they thought deserved prompt answers, school authorities considered the suspension a private personnel matter.
Protective Services, a division of the county's Department of Social Services, was contacted by Mrs. Owen, said Donald R. Morrison, speaking for the school system Monday, five days after Mr. Banz, the county's 1993 Teacher-Historian award winner, was suspended.
"Protective Services decides whether to request a police investigation or not," said Mr. Morrison, who did not reveal the teacher's identity.
"No charges have been brought against the teacher, but we will investigate all of the allegations thoroughly."
In fact, Protective Services contacted the Harford County Child Advocacy Center Oct. 29, said Sgt. Edward Hopkins, a sheriff's office criminal investigator assigned to the center.
"From everything we were told, there was no allegations of child sexual abuse," said Sergeant Hopkins. "We researched laws on exploitation and sexual abuse and could find no criminal activity in the actions of the teacher as described to us.
"We care about the children. If a case meets our criteria, we go right to work on it. The Magnolia case did not," he said. "We classified the allegations as inappropriate behavior, possibly leering, but leering is not illegal."
A group of parents met at the Joppatowne Library on Oct. 30 to discuss what they could or should do about the allegations. They were joined by Mr. Fournier, Mrs. McCall and Jean Thomas, president of the Harford County Education Association, the teachers union.
Also present, at the request of one of the parents, was Shirley Giberson, a counselor and child advocate from Kingsville in Baltimore County.
Mrs. Giberson is president of the Perry Hall PTA and founder of PRIDE (Parents Rights In Developing Education), a group of about 75 Perry Hall and Kingsville parents in Baltimore County that organized to gain the attention they believe they deserve from school administrators and school board members.
Mrs. Giberson offered advice to parents on how to support their children and make certain an investigation is carried out properly.
After the initial investigation began Oct. 28, three more students joined the original four in allegations of inappropriate behavior against Mr. Banz. Parents of the seven students will meet with the school board Thursday.
That meeting will be closed to the public, said Mrs. McCall.
"I believe it will be a fact-finding mission," said Mr. Fournier. "Parents will have questions, and the school board will try to answer them."
Mr. Fournier will attempt to convince the school board to modify its policy on the way such incidents are handled.
"We don't need specific details," he said. "But it would be nice if we were told something had happened, it was being investigated and a teacher had been suspended.
"Then, if parents called their PTA presidents, we would at least have some knowledge and be able to respond."
Attempts to reach Mr. Banz for comment were unsuccessful.