A group of parents has petitioned the school superintendent to remove Odenton Elementary School principal Barbara San Gabino, saying she failed to discipline three boys who "mock raped" a girl on the playground.
The 350-signature petition to Dr. Larry L. Lorton was triggered by a June 6 incident that was investigated by a school departmentofficial and, because the school is on Fort Meade, by military police. Their report concluded that the students were involved in a game of tag that got out of hand.
Lorton, while acknowledging some problems, has said San Gabino will remain as principal.
The controversy has divided the school community.
For some parents, San Gabino's handling of the playground incident is one item on a long list of inadequacies they see in the principal.
Jackie Watson, president of the Parent Teacher Association, complained that San Gabino failed to notify parents.
"She should have told parents of the kids involved what happened, and the boysshould have been reprimanded," Watson said. "Teachers are very limited on the playground. I can see where teachers may have overlooked itwith boys wrestling around."
San Gabino's supporters say her detractors are using the incident to conduct a witch hunt.
Odenton teacher Doris Manzo likens the situation to the children's telephone game, where rumors take on a life of their own.
"So many stories havecome out of it," Manzo said. "I think bad vigilante action is takingover. She's a very innovative principal. They found something to latch their dislikes on."
San Gabino said parents' complaints that she didn't act promptly are unfair. She said she was absent the day after the incident because she was recovering from surgery for a skin ulcer. She still has a large bandage on her right leg.
"The incidentwas blown out of proportion. My decision was substantiated by the board. The issue is closed, and I'm moving forward," she said.
School officials have offered little comment about the playground incident. C. Berry Carter, deputy superintendent, said his office handled theinvestigation to determine what occurred and how the school responded.
"I don't know how to characterize it," Carter said. "It certainly was not desirable behavior, but it wasn't the kind of behavior initially reported.
Students were questioned and counseled, he said.
"We met with parents of all youngsters involved. I think the issueis more than a playground incident. Parents have concerns that go beyond that. And that is something appropriately handled by the superintendent's office."
Whether or not the playground incident is resolved, members of the Parent Teacher Association and other school groups have told officials that the principal has other shortcomings.
Former Citizen Advisory Committee leader Diana Gardner said the petition was accompanied by a two-page list of grievances.
Among the complaints: frequent absenteeism and failure to discipline repeat offenders, supervise busing and respond to complaints.
"We believe she is a principal that was liked in other places, but for whatever reason, it isn't working here," Gardner said. "We asked that there be a kind way to let her retire or be removed."
Gardner said she was pleased with Lorton's response, which included a lengthy follow-up letter that stated: "It is clear that the principal (San Gabino) has not performed as well in some areas of her responsibilities as she is capable of or what parents have a right to expect."
However, Lorton alsodefended San Gabino, noting that she had been forced to take on additional responsibilities connected to state-mandated school improvement programs. Those additional duties are expected to be reduced in thecoming year, he said.
Odenton Elementary students and their teachers spent the last year in temporary quarters at MacArthur Middle School while their building was being renovated. They will be returning Sept. 3 to a fresh facility and -- perhaps -- a fresh start.
San Gabino said she is ready to put the past behind and move on, and parents insist they want the same thing.
"I'm always working to improvecommunication, to improve instruction," San Gabino said. "I want to improve every aspect, but we never get it all right.
"When the school year opens, I'd like to see a lot of smiling faces on children and parents and a willingness to work with me in the interest of children."