Weighing the Word of a Student


In many ways, the case of Northeast High School teacher Laurie Cook is more significant to teachers than that of Ronald Walter Price. Price's admission of lurid sexual involvement with students made his conviction a virtual certainty, and the teaching community immediately distanced itself from him. But Ms. Cook, who denied wrongdoing, was seen by colleagues as the embodiment of their worst nightmare: a dedicated teacher victimized by the lies of a vindictive pupil.

The jury may not have seen it exactly the same way, but certainly it didn't believe Ms. Cook's teen-age accuser. She was cleared Friday of child abuse and other sex charges.

Educators were relieved; what they view as a "witch hunt" seems to have taken a new turn. Here was support for their belief, voiced at a Maryland State Teachers Association workshop last week, that the growing number of teacher abuse cases can be chalked up to disgruntled students who are out to get them. The implication is that students lie and that their complaints shouldn't be taken very seriously.

These are difficult times for teachers. The Price case and its aftermath have besmirched their profession, which is unfair because only a handful of teachers are responsible for the troubling headlines of recent months. Society in general has become bolder about coming forward with claims of mistreatment and more liberal in its view of what mistreatment is. All of this has made teachers more vulnerable.

But while there is no question the majority of public school teachers are dedicated to the welfare of children, neither is there any doubt that teacher misconduct does occur at times. When a student complains, the schools, social service departments and the police cannot assume he or she is making it up; they have to take the allegations seriously.

In fact, a review of more than 100 teacher abuse cases by this newspaper found only two involving blatant lying by students. Some complaints are frivolous, and the authorities bear responsibility for weeding them out. Others, like the one against Laurie Cook, will ultimately be found wanting by the courts.

But remember: for years before he was finally found out, Ron Price tried to discredit his victims and other students who knew of his criminal acts by saying they were making it up. To write off all students as liars is as dangerous as branding all teachers as potential abusers.

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