The findings of an independent hearing examiner make it clear: Anne Arundel County's Board of Education has little choice but to reinstate former Northeast High School science teacher Laurie S. Cook, who had been accused by a student of having sex with him.
Ms. Cook has been exonerated twice -- once by a Circuit Court jury, which found her innocent of sexually abusing a 14-year-old student, and now by hearing examiner William M. Ferris, who found insufficient evidence of misconduct after conducting eight hearings and listening to 40 hours of testimony. The school board is not required to follow Mr. Ferris' recommendation, but it is inconceivable that it will not do so.
Even with the relaxed evidentiary rules of the administrative hearing, Mr. Ferris found the school superintendent's case against Ms. Cook unconvincing. Evidence was lacking or mishandled. The internal investigator's report was inadmissible because it presented summaries rather than verbatim statements from witnesses. Administrators produced no hall passes to prove the charge that Ms. Cook had forged passes. The alleged victim's father did not testify and Mr. Ferris did not believe the youth, his mother and sister.
We wish that we could welcome a dedicated teacher back to the classroom. But after reading Mr. Ferris' report, we are bothered that his recommendation to reinstate Ms. Cook seems based more on the inadequacy of the superintendent's investigation than on belief in the strength of the teacher's explanations. In fact, Mr. Ferris writes that one witness left him with the "strong impression" that Ms. Cook believed she had done something wrong. That witness -- the victim of convicted child abuser Ron Price, another Northeast teacher -- said that she and Ms. Cook shared intimate conversations about Ms. Cook's sexual and romantic life, and that she had told Ms. Cook about her involvement with Price. Mr. Ferris said he tended to believe the witness when she said that Ms. Cook told her she feared she would be fired, but the hearing officer said the school system's case left it too ambiguous why she felt that way.
A year ago, an outside lawyer who reviewed the system's mishandling of suspected child abuse cases called school investigators "amateur sleuths." Although the administration has reorganized its investigative division, training is still inadequate. As this latest case illustrates, the school investigators aren't up to their task.