Teacher's conduct investigated once before

The Baltimore Sun

A prominent Howard County high school band director accused of sexually abusing a female student was investigated by school officials almost two years ago after a parent reported seeing the girl sitting on his lap in his office, according to court documents released yesterday.

Police said Robert Douglas Johnston, 61, who has taught at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City for 35 years, sexually abused the student over a two-year period that began when she was 15. He was arrested Monday and charged with sexual abuse of a minor, third- and fourth-degree sex offenses, and obscene telephone misuse. He could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted.

At a hearing yesterday in Howard Circuit Court, a judge cut Johnston's bail from $350,000 to $25,000 after his attorney, Michele M. Shimek, argued that Johnston poses neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community.

Charging documents said Mount Hebron's principal told police Johnston had been the subject of an in-school investigation in February 2007 after a parent told school officials of seeing the student sitting on Johnston's lap.

Patti Caplan, a school system spokeswoman, declined to comment yesterday on that incident, citing school policy prohibiting public comment on personnel matters.

School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said yesterday: "We're going to do what's right by the kids. It's much better for these things to come to the surface than go unreported."

Johnston has taught in the county school system for 39 years, including the last 35 as director of award-winning bands at Mount Hebron in Ellicott City. He was suspended with pay on Dec. 8.

According to the charging documents, the case began when Principal Scott Ruehl called police after receiving an e-mail Dec. 6 that included copies of personal messages between Johnston and the alleged victim. Police interviewed the girl three times on three different days starting on Dec. 8. Initially she described Johnston as her friend and said "nothing has ever happened" between them.

In an interview with police the next day, Johnston denied sexual contact. He confirmed sending and receiving some of the e-mail messages and stated that the two had an "uncle/niece" relationship, according to the charging documents.

In a second interview, the girl told police that the two had a romantic relationship and that Johnston told her he wanted to have sex with her. She said he often fondled, hugged and kissed her in the band room, according to the court documents, but said the two never had intercourse. Three days later she told police she had not revealed everything that had happened, and gave a list of several forms of sexual contact that had occurred between them.

Wearing a dark gray jumpsuit, Johnston appeared at yesterday's hearing before District Judge Neil Edward Axel via a video feed from a holding cell at the county detention center. His wife, Ann, who also is a teacher at Mount Hebron, attended the hearing. She and Shimek declined to comment after the hearing.

Johnston was released on bail yesterday afternoon, said a spokesman for the county state's attorney's office. He's banned from the school and ordered not to have any contact with the victim.

An article in yesterday's Sun misstated the court in which a bail hearing was held for Robert Douglas Johnson, a Mount Hebron High School band director charged with sexually abusing a female student. The hearing was held in Howard County District Court.The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.
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