A special education teacher at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City, who had been arrested but never prosecuted 12 years ago on charges of fondling three neighborhood girls, was charged yesterday with fondling a 15-year-old student at his school earlier this month.
Dennis Gotcher, 48, of the 5000 block of Beatrice Way, Columbia, was released on his own recognizance pending trial. He was charged with child abuse and a fourth-degree sex offense, which carry a maximum penalty of 16 years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Howard school officials never learned of Mr. Gotcher's 1978 arrest on charges that he fondled three 13-year-old girls in his neighborhood, said Patti Vierkant, spokeswoman for the school system. Mr. Gotcher was hired by the county in 1977.
Under a law passed in 1986, the school system would be notified if a teacher had a prior conviction. Since Mr. Gotcher was never prosecuted, however, the county would not have known about his arrest even if the law had been in effect when he was hired, Ms. Vierkant said.
"I think we are a lot stricter now in our reporting procedures of these type of issues than in the past and there is an increased public awareness, so when there are allegations of abuse, it no longer remains in the closet," she said.
A report filed in District Court by Detective Lawrence P. Teixeira said Mr. Gotcher had agreed to seek counseling after the 1978 arrest and as a result prosecutors agreed to place his case on the inactive docket for a year. In such instances, the case is dropped if no other charges are filed after a year.
The detective said the recent incident is alleged to have occurred about 5 p.m. March 12 at Mount Hebron's snack bar, which Mr. Gotcher operates.
The girl told police that Mr. Gotcher embraced her from behind for about 20 minutes and rubbed her breast for about two minutes. When she turned to leave, she said, he grabbed her bottom.
Mr. Gotcher, who also coaches junior varsity girls' basketball and has been active in the Special Olympics program in Howard County, could not be reached yesterday for comment. Ms. Vierkant, the schools spokeswoman, said Mr. Gotcher will be placed on administrative duty pending his trial.
Mr. Gotcher is the second county teacher to be charged with sex offenses this year. Donald Cohen, a music teacher at Glenwood Middle School, was charged in January with child abuse after a Texas woman told police he had engaged in sexual acts with her 10 years ago when she was a 17-year-old student.
Mr. Cohen also has been given administrative duty pending trial.