School crisis in Anne Arundel

July 31, 1992

An Anne Arundel County elementary school teacher has been charged with assaulting her students -- a crisis so delicate and difficult that it almost seems unfair to criticize the mistakes that have been made in the handling of this allegation. But both parents and school officials need to examine what they did wrong so that any future incidents can be handled more intelligently -- and more fairly.

The central problem in this emotional, sometimes bitter dispute is simply this: Neither side has been sensitive enough to the position of the other.

Parents have demanded information that the school system has no right to give. Desperate to protect their children, they refused to accept that the system has a legal obligation to protect its employees as well as its pupils.

School officials, on the other hand, have been too apt to shrug off parents' fears. They have been unable to walk the fine line between protecting confidential information and telling parents

enough to reassure them.

Perhaps the biggest mistake school officials made was refusing to say whether the teacher in question will return to the classroom this fall.

They could and should have calmed parents by saying immediately that the woman would not resume teaching until the allegations are handled in the courts -- a standard procedure in neighboring counties. Then they should have refused demands for further details about where the teacher was being transferred or whether she was being dismissed.

School officials also erred by transferring the teacher's principal to another school after parents complained that he delayed reporting child abuse complaints.

What did this accomplish? It seemed to confirm that the principal, who has since been cleared after a school investigation, had done something wrong. And it infuriated a second group of parents who did not want to give up a principal they liked for someone whom other parents didn't trust.

Now some of those parents are threatening legal action to make details of the principal's personnel file public. They want a new policy that would give parents a say in deciding who will lead their children's schools.

Schools work well when parents participate; they work terribly when parents control. Despite good intentions, some parents become overly emotional about school issues, leading to bad judgments and hysteria. They shouldn't be allowed to run the schools. But school officials must learn to show more understanding of the feelings that sometimes make parents wish they could.

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