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Sudden notoriety jolts 'normal' Carroll school


The low-slung brick building gives way to tennis courts and a parking lot on one side, football bleachers on another and well-worn athletic fields on a third. At 2:30 yesterday afternoon, yellow buses pushed past in a steady rotation, clogging the surrounding streets. Kids rolled down their car windows, flicked the ashes off newly lit cigarettes and cranked their stereos.

Carroll County's Francis Scott Key High School couldn't have looked more typical. And it couldn't be more typical, according to parents, teachers and students.

"That's what we are, a normal high school," said senior Sarah Guynn, the student government treasurer who scored a perfect 1,600 on her SAT and made All-Metro in field hockey.

Key has been anything but normal the past six days. The school's name has become a buzzword around the Baltimore area, as two teachers, substitute Kimberly L. Merson, 24, and student teacher Tracie L. Mokry, 21, have been criminally charged with having sex with several Key students in separate incidents.

Teachers have already tired of feeling associated with the scandals. Parents have rallied around the school, which they said provides stability and a solid academic program. Students and people in the surrounding area say it's time to move on. Many seem worried that Key's reputation might suffer from what they call isolated incidents.

The smallest high school in Carroll with 1,100 students, Key draws from Taneytown, New Windsor, Union Bridge and some of the county's most rural in-between spaces. Many students grow up on farms or in communities where their sets of grandparents have known each other for 50 years. The school hasn't escaped the problems of drugs, bullying and teen sex, but its population has remained a bit more innocent than many, parents and teachers say.

'More close-knit'

"It's a more established community," said Key's first-year principal, Randy Clark. "This area has not seen the extreme growth and transition that you've seen in other areas of the county. We have more parents who went to school here also, and I think maybe we're more close-knit."

The community's intimate relationship with the school has helped during the past week, Clark said, because parents have treated the sexual incidents as aberrations and not signs that Key is doing something wrong.

They packed the auditorium for a choral performance Wednesday night and have been overwhelmingly sympathetic and positive, he said.

Years of successes

By most measures, the school has had an outstanding year. A passel of students earned All-County band honors, the field hockey team, led by Guynn, won its first county title since 1988 and the volleyball team made its second straight Class 2A state final.

Carrie Ness won County Player of the Year honors for her deft volleyball passing and 6-footer Samantha Stambaugh earned All-Metro honors for her powerful spikes.

The football team had its best season in decades, going 9-1 and making the state playoffs. But even that success, which helped unify the school, has become the punch line of jokes, because six of the eight boys with whom Merson is accused of having sex played football.

In recent years, the school, built in 1958, completed a $16 million renovation and found itself at the center of controversy after the Carroll school system built an $800,000 wastewater treatment on campus without obtaining the proper state permits.

Key's SAT scores rank last among county schools this year but ranked first just three years ago. Last year, it was the only Carroll high school not to meet state standards for dropout rate. With 9.3 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price meals, it's probably the county's poorest high school but has more computers per student than its peers. About half of its graduates attend a four-year or two-year college.

Parents support school

Most parents interviewed about the school said it has provided a rich environment for their children.

"I don't think one incident should cause the guillotine to be above all the teachers," said Melissa Harris, who runs a business in Taneytown and has a ninth-grader at Key. "My son has had a great year there."

Praise for faculty, staff

A government class, in which the teacher focuses heavily on current events such as last year's presidential election, has been her son's favorite experience, she said.

"I've always appreciated the faculty and staff there, and I still do," said Ed Palsgrove, a New Windsor Town Council member whose son is a senior and leading actor in school plays at Key.

Barbara Achziger, who lives just outside New Windsor and had four children graduate from the school between 1982 and 1989, described Key as "almost like an extended family."

All of her children "had a great education at Key. It's wholesome," she said.

Perhaps signaling their understanding that the school isn't fundamentally flawed, the county commissioners have stayed out of the hubbub.

"We will not be getting involved," Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said yesterday. "The state police, the state's attorney's office and the Board of Education are all looking at it, so really, there's nothing we could do."

Weary of bad news

Constant media scrutiny over the sex charges has fostered a growing exasperation at the school and in the surrounding community, however.

"Folks would like to just have it end," said Perry Jones, mayor of nearby Union Bridge, where Merson lives. "It happened. It was an unfortunate incident, but we hope things stop showing up in the paper so we can get on with our lives."

Clark described stronger feelings inside the school.

"There's shock, concern, some anger and a sense of betrayal," he said. "These incidents put sort of a black mark on the school, and it doesn't deserve it."

Teachers have grown increasingly angry, Clark said, because they feel tainted by the actions of people who were not even members of the regular faculty. Many connected with the school seem concerned its reputation will unfairly suffer.

"There are hundreds of good things that go on at Carroll schools that get relatively little publicity, but all it takes is one bad incident to make the school look bad," said George Phillips, a former principal at Key who is now principal at South Carroll High School. "That's just the way the world works."

Keeping things 'normal'

Students disagree on how much the news has affected school life.

"Honestly, I don't know that it's really, truly affected us that much," said Megan Sands, a 17-year-old senior. "The teachers are a little nervous, so they're being careful. But they're trying hard to keep things normal."

Sands said no one should blame the school for the incidents.

With prom and graduation coming in the next few weeks, students aren't dwelling on the attention the incidents have received, Guynn said.

"I don't think people are thinking of it in terms of the school's reputation or anything. We're just getting on with our lives," she said.

School spirit had been up throughout the year but has fallen since news of the scandals broke, countered some.

'Let's Move On'

Students no longer smile or seem excited when approached by reporters. When asked if they attend Key, many merely nod their heads wearily.

Across the street from Key, someone has looped plastic bags through a fence to spell the phrase "Let's Move On."

"Honestly, I feel it's the best school I could've gone to," said Sands, who has a 4.0 grade point average and has logged more than 500 hours tutoring.

"It's a small school, and everybody knows you. You feel protected."

Sun staff writers Maria Blackburn, Brenda J. Buote, Jennifer McMenamin and Sun contributing writer Alicia Bessling contributed to this article.

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