School lawyer faulted in Price case Board threatens to delay job renewal

August 04, 1993|By Carol L. Bowers and Andrea F. Siegel | Carol L. Bowers and Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writers

Anne Arundel County school board members, angered about advice he has given them on allegations of child sexual abuse, have threatened to delay the reappointment of their lawyer, P. Tyson Bennett.

Mr. Bennett's appointment comes up for renewal at today's Board of Education meeting, which begins at 9 a.m., but several board members said they might delay the vote until they have a chance to talk to him.

Board member Jo Ann Tollenger said she would urge the board to delay a vote on Mr. Bennett's reappointment, possibly for another month or two.

"Tyson is involved in some heavy-duty stuff," said Ms. Tollenger, including arbitration with the teachers union and other sensitive matters.

She said she is concerned about putting a new person in those situations.

She added that she believes the board should have a different lawyer than the superintendent and his staff, a concern she initially raised more than a year ago.

Mr. Bennett would not comment on his reappointment or board members' remarks.

"Yes, he has given us bad advice," said one board member who asked not to be identified. "He has given us faulty advice, as I've learned from talking to other education lawyers."

What concerned four board members was Mr. Bennett's advice that allegations of sexual misconduct by teachers had to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt before authorities were called in.

That advice pertains directly to the case of Ronald Walter Price, 49, a former Northeast High School teacher accused of having sex with students.

A state investigation released last week showed repeated allegations made against Mr. Price over seven years went unreported to social workers or police and were dismissed on several occasions as "rumor and innuendo."

"Essentially we set artificially high standards to give adults leniency," said another board member.

"If a kid had done something it was promptly investigated and dealt with, but if an allegation was made against an adult you had to prove almost beyond a reasonable doubt."

But state law requires that authorities must be contacted immediately on "suspicion" of child abuse.

A "HELP" manual given to school administrators and teachers on a multitude of school system policies advises them to make written reports of child sex abuse to social workers and police within 48 hours.

But the introduction to the manual advises administrators to use their "discretion."

A team of state investigators criticized the manual's introduction, noting that reporting suspected child abuse is not discretionary.

Several board members, based on a consultation with state Board of Education lawyers and state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, also faulted Mr. Bennett for discouraging them from having a news conference or otherwise reacting when the Price case became public.

One board member said Mr. Bennett's advice led them to stay on the sidelines when they should have been "out front."

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