Lawyer advises silence

December 07, 1993|By Carol L. Bowers and Andrea F. Siegel | Carol L. Bowers and Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writers

Teachers accused of abusing students should not talk to school administrators, police or social workers until they have a lawyer -- preferably one provided by the Maryland State Teachers Association.

"Many teachers say 'I'm innocent, I have nothing to hide.' But it's usually the ones who are innocent that we can help," Susan Russell, an MSTA lawyer, told about 70 teachers last night at a workshop sponsored by the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County. "I can present the facts in such a way that we can show you didn't do it, or that what you did fell within the guidelines."

The school system required teachers and other employees to attend seminars this fall to learn how to recognize and report suspected child abuse and neglect.

But TAAAC leaders said those seminars failed to address what happens to an employee when he or she is named as a suspected abuser.

"Every teacher needs to know this information," said one teacher who asked not to be identified. She said students have taken to routinely threatening to file false abuse charges against teachers.

"What's happening is more and more students are learning if you have a problem with the teacher, you have a problem with the class, make an allegation against the teacher and . . . you're getting taken out of class," said Ms. Russell.

The number of abuse reports have skyrocketed since the arrests last spring and summer of four teachers who allegedly had sexual relationships with students.

Pamela Smelser, a supervisor in the county Department of Social Services' division of Child Protective Services, said that her department is ruling out abuse in more cases than in the past.

Her office investigated 325 cases in September alone, though it is geared to handle 250 a month. It declined to probe other complaints -- often because there was no injury -- and social workers do not have a way to gauge how many students lied or exaggerated overall.

Teachers at the meeting were distressed that there seems to be no penalty for students who knowingly make false accusations against them. Even slander lawsuits filed by falsely accused teachers usually go nowhere, Ms. Russell said.

Union members accused of child abuse are entitled to free legal representation courtesy of the MSTA.

The MSTA lawyer will represent that teacher in court, when the teacher is being questioned by social workers or police, and during all job-related hearings.

For a teacher who chooses to hire a private lawyer, the union will reimburse up to $35,000 in legal fees -- but only if the employee is acquitted or charges are dropped.

Ms. Russell told teachers that their best bet is not the family lawyer who drew up their will, but someone who specializes in criminal law.

The stakes are high: A teacher can be fired based on a school system investigation alone, and a criminal conviction for abuse automatically leads to firing and possible loss of a state teaching license.

"If it is important enough that Social Services decided to have this case investigated, it is important for you to have somebody there for you," Ms. Russell said.

One teacher said she would rather have parents approach her directly if they suspect she has mistreated their child and to question their children thoroughly before initiating an investigation.

The danger in that scenario is that distraught parents have threatened teachers -- though at least in Anne Arundel County they have not carried through on their angry words, Ms. Russell said.

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