Student discipline or case of assault? Increasingly, courts and school officials are asked to decide

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For three months last summer, a teacher at a Howard County elementary school stood accused of assaulting an 8-year-old student by ripping a chain from his neck.

Although criminal charges were dropped, the teacher felt the sting of a trend in the county school system. More teachers are being accused of physically or sexually assaulting their students than in years past.

In about half of all complaints, teachers are cleared by courts and school officials of wrongdoing.

But school officials say they are obligated by law to report and investigate every claim of child abuse brought to their attention. In protecting the youths in their halls, they say, they err in favor of students.

State teachers union officials say the number of assault accusations against Maryland teachers have doubled in the past few years, a trend mirrored by the increase in Howard County. They call it a product of a hypersensitive, litigious society in which classrooms are another place with potential liability.

Such accusations also weaken the authority of teachers at a time when student suspensions and disobedience in Howard County schools are on the rise, local union officials say.

Karen Dunlop, president of the county teachers union, said Howard teachers are under siege.

"It gives kids who aren't old enough to know better a pretty damning and powerful weapon to use when they are angry," said Dunlop, whose union has nearly 3,000 member teachers and support personnel. "You might tap them on the shoulder to draw their attention -- that's unwanted touching."

The number of accusations against Howard's 2,770 teachers increased from four in the 1992-1993 school year to 10 in 1995-1996, Associate Superintendent James R. McGowan said. This fall, five teachers have been accused by students, he said.

Dunlop says her office receives an average of one call a week from a teacher seeking aid in defending against accusations of some form of assault, up from one a month three years ago.

Of the assault complaints filed with the school system against Howard teachers since 1992, 53 percent resulted in the teacher being cleared of wrongdoing by school authorities and investigators.

Difficult situation

"There is a paranoia [among parents] that is completely out of control," Dunlop said, "yet at the same time you don't want to have these accusations go uninvestigated. That would be awful."

When teachers are accused by students or their parents of assault, they generally are removed from contact with students and placed on administrative duties until investigations are complete, which can take a day or several months.

Walter Levin, chief counsel for the Maryland State Teachers Association, said the effect on teachers "is absolutely devastating. You don't really go into [teaching] for the money. You do it because you love the kids."

Handled in system

Most complaints against teacher are handled within the school system. Punishment for inappropriate actions can range from a letter of reprimand to dismissal.

All cases are forwarded to the county Department of Social Services, and those deemed serious by DSS and police investigators are sent to the county state's attorney's office, but most never make it to court.

In the past two years, the state's attorney's office has reviewed seven cases. During that time, 15 complaints were filed with the school system. Of the seven, the office prosecuted four. Two resulted in convictions and two in acquittals.

The acquittals involved two Elkridge Elementary teachers who went to trial this fall on battery charges in separate cases. The judges ruled that even if the teachers had touched the students, they were acting within their rights as teachers, according to a judge in one case and attorneys on both sides in the other.

In place of parents

"Teachers act in loco parentis," said one of the judges, District Judge Louis A. Becker, referring to the legal concept that allows teachers to stand in the place of parents while students are at school, granting them the right to use reasonable force to discipline or control a child.

In one of those two cases, the Elkridge Elementary teacher was accused of battery in June after he grabbed a 10-year-old boy by the wrist and took him into the hallway after the boy refused to participate in class, according to charging documents in the case.

The teacher's grip left three marks on the underside of the boy's right forearm that appeared to be broken blood vessels, according to a police report.

The teacher's attorney, Thomas C. Morrow, argued that the teacher did not intend to cause harm, according to court records.

Morrow also argued that the teacher had the right to use reasonable force to control his students, according to court records.

The Sun is not identifying the teacher or others cleared of charges because the teachers were acquitted by the courts and fear their reputations would be further damaged if they were identified.

Some of the teachers are seeking to have their court records expunged.

More scrutiny

Thomas Proffitt, assistant dean of the college of education at Towson State University, said, "Taking a student by the hand is something that teachers have done for hundreds of years but nowadays that leads to increased parental involvement."

He said accusations against teachers are increasing in part because parents' trust has been eroded by abuse convictions.

The teachers convicted include:

Anne Arundel teacher Ronald W. Price, who had sex with several students. A four-month probe revealed that the school system failed to turn over 60 cases of suspected child abuse to authorities.

A teacher at Columbia's Swansfield Elementary, Craig A. Smith, who was convicted in July of fondling a teen-age boy at his home and faces additional accusations.

Howard substitute teacher Mary Winters Bollinger, who was convicted of battery last month for giving an 11-year-old student at Laurel Woods Elementary a bloody nose.

"People are becoming very much aware and scared of what professional people may be doing when they are taking care of their children," McGowan said.

One parent's story

Kim Vichich, the mother of a 9-year-old Elkridge Elementary student, remembers that her knuckles were rapped when she was in a Roman Catholic school.

But when her son told her that another teacher at the school had pushed him into a wall in June, she said, she filed criminal charges.

Vichich said she did so because the school's principal, Diane Mumford, told her a county social services investigation found no injuries to her son and Vichich feared the school system would not follow up on the matter.

The teacher is "there to teach not there to discipline my child in any physical way," Vichich said.

Mumford declined to comment at length, saying only that she followed school policy by calling the social services agency.

Vichich said her son's shoulder was bruised and that four finger marks were left on his upper arm.

Police have refused to release their reports on the incident, saying the assault case falls under the confidentiality provisions of child-abuse cases.

Court motions by the teacher's attorney deny that the teacher touched the child.

The teacher was acquitted of assault and battery charges this fall, court records show. The teacher declined to comment for this article.

Still, Vichich said she is contemplating civil litigation in an effort to have the teacher removed from the school.

"If [the teacher] were to do something to somebody else's kid and I did nothing about [my son], I would feel horrible to let it go by," Vichich said.

Review established

The increase in accusations against teachers, said Morrow, the attorney who handled the cases of both Elkridge teachers, led to a 1995 state statute calling for all criminal charges against teachers to be reviewed by a state's attorney before they proceed.

But that statute did little to help a teacher at Jeffers Hill Elementary who had charges hanging over her head for three months -- even though police filed reports soon after the incident calling the case baseless, said one officer who was involved.

The mother of an 8-year-old child filed charges of assault, battery and malicious destruction of property against the teacher, accusing her of ripping a necklace off the boy's neck.

The teacher said the experience was humiliating.

"It occupied my mind all summer," the teacher said. "I was bawling all the time."

In an interview, Cpl. Norman Snyder, who investigated the June 10 incident, said his report stated there was insufficient evidence to proceed in the case. But the charges were not dropped until September.

System didn't work

"Unfortunately, in this case, the system did not work as quickly as I thought it was intended to," Snyder said.

County State's Attorney Marna McLendon said a paperwork foul-up caused the case to proceed even though she agrees that it should have been dropped.

"I don't know where the fault lies," McLendon said. "We're trying to streamline the process."

But even when teachers are cleared by the courts, their problems may not be over.

McGowan, the associate superintendent, said the Howard school system conducts its own investigations to determine whether, in its view, the teachers' actions were inappropriate.

Until investigations are finished, the teachers generally are kept from contact with students. The school system says its investigations are personnel matters and declines to comment.

In three cases detailed above:

Court records say one of the two acquitted Elkridge Elementary teachers was assigned administrative duties at least until October after criminal charges were filed in August. The teacher has moved to another school in Howard.

The other acquitted Elkridge Elementary teacher is working in the county schools' grounds department, according to school officials. They will not say whether this teacher is still under investigation.

The Jeffers Hill teacher, whose case was dropped, said no action has been taken against her.

Since 1992, the system has taken action against 14 teachers, with punishments ranging from a letter of reprimand to dismissal.

But school officials would not detail specific punishments.

McGowan said the school system is becoming more cautious, choosing to step in early with warnings in unclear cases in an effort to prevent problems with a teacher.

Different interpretations

He said that in recent years, interpretations of rules for teachers involving corporal punishment have changed. "It used to be paddling," he said. "But now it can be grabbing a student."

He said that no systemwide rule against touching students exists, but that corporal punishment -- defined by the school district as "physical punishment or undue physical discomfort inflicted on the body of a student for the purpose of maintaining discipline or to enforce school rules" -- is prohibited.

L. Palmer Foret, Vichich's attorney, said society has progressed since the days when teachers routinely paddled children or rapped their knuckles with rulers.

"America wants a hands-off society," Foret said.

Mumford, the Elkridge Elementary principal, said her school uses a five-step plan for disciplining students. Teachers are told never to touch students without a witness.

Only Mumford and two other officials in the 730-student school are authorized to restrain children to remove them from a classroom. All three underwent training last year and learned safe ways to hold children.

'Protect everyone'

"We have to be so careful. We protect everyone. We protect the teachers and the children," Mumford said. "I don't think our teachers are running scared. The important thing is you never touch a child when you're angry."

Michael Rosenberg, chairman of the Johns Hopkins University's department of special education, said some policies today can go too far.

"People are afraid to give a kid a pat on the back because it can be misinterpreted," he said. "It's really a quandary."

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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