Parents say complaints led to teacher's transfer

January 30, 1994|By Jim Haner and Gary Gately | Jim Haner and Gary Gately,Staff Writers

John J. Merzbacher Jr., the former teacher charged with molesting students at a Catholic middle school in South Baltimore, was abruptly transferred from a city public school amid accusations that he battered sixth-graders there a year before the Archdiocese of Baltimore hired him, two parents said.

City school records confirm that Mr. Merzbacher was "involuntarily" transferred from John Ruhrah Elementary to another school on Nov. 7, 1971. Two days earlier, the parents said, they had met with top school officials to report his alleged beating and verbal abuse of students and presumed that he had been fired from the school system.

The two PTA mothers said they became concerned when parents told them Mr. Merzbacher had punched one child in the stomach, thrown another across a classroom and forced one boy to stand against a bulletin board while the teacher threw darts around him.

But school officials say they have no record of any complaints against the teacher and that Mr. Merzbacher wasn't fired until the end of the school year, when he was dismissed from Tench Tilghman Elementary because he lacked a college degree.

"He was in no way fit to be a teacher," said Martha Dennis, 51, who says she was among a group of PTA mothers who went to district headquarters and reported their suspicions about Mr. Merzbacher in November 1971. "And we certainly told them everything they needed to know to keep him from ever being a teacher again."

Together with two other PTA representatives, the women said, they voiced their concerns at a meeting at school district headquarters with then-Superintendent Roland Patterson and an assistant superintendent, Rebecca Carroll.

During the session, Dr. Patterson angrily demanded that Mr. Merzbacher be brought into his office the next Monday morning to respond to the allegations, parent Myrtle Thomas recalled. It was Mr. Merzbacher's last day as a teacher at the school.

"We went asking that the situation be looked into, that it be brought to light and then that an action be taken," Mrs. Dennis said. "And they assured us that something would be done, and it was."

She said she knew of no further investigation into the matter.

"He was simply removed from the school, and that was the end of it as far as we were concerned," she said. "We did the best

thing that we could for the children at John Ruhrah."

But Mrs. Carroll, who is retired from the school system, denies any such meeting ever took place.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is all a fabrication," she said. "I remember zilch. As far as I'm concerned, I draw a complete blank."

School system officials also said no records indicate the PTA group met with Dr. Patterson, who died in 1982.

The archdiocese was unaware of the parents' allegations when it hired Mr. Merzbacher three months after his dismissal from public schools, said archdiocesan spokesman Bill Blaul.

References checked

"We did check references," Mr. Blaul said. "Among the references, which included teachers, we checked with the three principals of the three public schools where he worked in, and there was no indication with any of those references that there was any problem with Mr. Merzbacher."

Mr. Merzbacher, 52, is free on bail awaiting trial on charges that he sexually assaulted 10 students at Catholic Community Middle School, where he taught from 1972 to 1979. The former teacher denies that he ever abused children.

Meanwhile, his attorneys have questioned how a man who began his career a decade earlier in public schools could possibly have assaulted so many students without someone finding out.

'Parents were really upset'

Mr. Merzbacher began his teaching career in 1962 at Highlandtown Elementary School, where some former students also have accused him of molesting them.

Mrs. Dennis and Mrs. Thomas told The Sun in separate interviews that they reported the teacher to the superintendent's office a year before the Archdiocese of Baltimore hired him to work at the middle school, formerly known as Our Lady of Good Counsel, on Fort Avenue in Locust Point.

"Parents were really upset, talking about how their kids would come home crying at night, terrified at what they had seen him do to other children in class that day," said Mrs. Thomas, who was among the PTA mothers.

Mrs. Thomas said she also told Dr. Patterson and Mrs. Carroll that some parents were concerned about Mr. Merzbacher's close contact with children after seeing him driving young boys around the neighborhood on weekends and hanging out in a local hamburger joint.

Mrs. Thomas said she recounted one instance to the administrators in which she went to the school for a conference one night and found a boy in Mr. Merzbacher's class long after everyone else had left for the day. She said she twice offered to give the child a ride home, but the teacher insisted that he would take care of it.

Both women said that Dr. Patterson assured them that Mr. Merzbacher would be removed from the school, and he was.

'Involuntarily' transferred

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