Acquitted teacher wants her job back

January 16, 1994|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writer

Having survived the embarrassment and notoriety of being accused of child abuse, as well as the horror of seeing her face flashed on national television, Laurie S. Cook said she can't wait to walk into a classroom at Northeast High School again -- and teach.

But the school system won't let her do that. Not just yet.

Acquitted early last month on a charge of sexually abusing a male science student, Ms. Cook remains on paid leave at her Catonsville home, working on a second master's degree and awaiting the outcome of a probe by special investigators in the Anne Arundel County school system.

Their findings will determine whether she must face a disciplinary hearing for possible misconduct and be forced to defend herself a second time over essentially the same allegations.

"I'm outraged," said Ms. Cook, 30, a teacher for seven years, all but one at Northeast. "They want to put me through another trial, only they call it a hearing. I'm the first teacher they've ever done this to. In the past, if a teacher went to court, the jury's decision was the ultimate decision. I want to go back to Northeast."

In the months before her trial, Ms. Cook kept to herself, granting her only news conference a few days after her arrest. Since her acquittal, she has agreed to occasional interviews -- with her Baltimore lawyer, M. Cristina Gutierrez, present.

More poised than in her initial confrontation with reporters and more willing to answer questions, Ms. Cook nonetheless watched her words carefully, mindful of the school system's investigation.

Still, her meetings with the press mark the first time she's had any chance to respond to issues raised in the trial. She never testified in court.

"I advised her not to go on the stand," said Ms. Gutierrez. "I was concerned because the judge said he would allow a particular teen-ager to testify as a rebuttal witness if Laurie went on the stand."

The teen-ager, a 17-year-old former Northeast student, was one of the three young women who testified against Ronald W. Price -- the first of the three Northeast teachers to be charged with child sex abuse. Price was convicted on three counts of child sex abuse and sentenced in October to 26 years in prison.

The teen-age girl apparently planned to testify that she saw Ms. Cook with the male student after school, Ms. Gutierrez said.

Ms. Gutierrez won permission for an unusually detailed jury-selection process to ensure jurors' opinions had not been tainted by the extensive publicity surrounding Price. Having gone through so much trouble to be sure the jury did not link the two cases, Ms. Gutierrez said she was reluctant to do anything that would let one of Price's victims on the stand.

Ms. Gutierrez has blamed Ms. Cook's arrest on the "hysteria" after Price's arrest and his claims on national television that other teachers at the school were sexually involved with students. Even the prosecutor, Robert Bittman, agreed afterward that had it not been for the Price case, Ms. Cook probably would not have gone to trial.

In court, the male student who made the accusation, and who has granted no interviews, testified that he and Ms. Cook had oral sex on at least one occasion in her car and fondled each other in the back of her science classroom at school. The student also testified that he broke off the relationship after she told him she "wanted to have his baby."

The student's mother, who turned down The Sun's request for an interview last week, testified that Ms. Cook was often at the family's home -- sometimes as late as 1 a.m.

Ms. Cook, who had all three children in the family as students in her science class at one time or another, said the mother's statements were "absurd."

The student's statements, Ms. Cook said, were apparently made because he was "disgruntled."

"My classes were overcrowded that year -- 35 to 40 students in a class -- and seven students were removed from each of my classes to form a new class," Ms. Cook said. "He was one of the seven, and he came to me halfway into the next semester, saying 'Why'd you have me pulled out of your class?' "

Sister's testimony

But what hurt most of all, Ms. Cook said, was the testimony of the student's sister -- a young woman, and a former student, she also befriended.

The student's sister testified that Ms. Cook once said "she wanted to have [my brother's] baby."

"I don't know where that came from," said Ms. Cook, shaking her head.

The teacher said she has no idea why the student, or his family, would make up such a story, especially after she went out of her way to help them.

She wouldn't say how many times she visited the home, but insisted that the visits were on school business, not social occasions.

"They made it clear they were financially needy. Every time I would call home, the mother would talk about it," said Ms. Cook, explaining why she bought college textbooks for her accuser's sister.

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