Teacher accused over Price

June 26, 1994|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Sun Staff Writer

Nearly two months after the Anne Arundel County school board vowed not to punish employees who failed to report child abuse between 1985 and 1993, staff members are recommending they do that in at least one case.

Last week, school administrators informed Laurie S. Cook, a former Northeast High School teacher, that they believe she failed to report a child abuse case involving another teacher at the school: Ronald W. Price.

Price is the only one of five county teachers accused of having sex with students to have been convicted. He is serving a 21-year sentence.

Ms. Cook was acquitted by a jury, as were two other teachers. The fifth teacher was not prosecuted for abuse but is facing dismissal as a result of an allegation that he had sex with a student 20 years ago.

Ms. Cook said she couldn't believe it when administrative charges were read to her Wednesday.

"I really feel like I'm on trial again," she said. "Other teachers who were acquitted in court have returned to the classroom. I want to go to Northeast."

She is accused of doing what an investigation showed other teachers had done for 20 years -- not report her suspicions that Price was having sex with a female student.

Ms. Cook says she had heard the rumors about Price. And one day she followed up on a comment made by the girl who became the first of three women to accuse Price.

"I remember asking her about it. I don't remember what she said that made me ask, but I asked and held my breath for the answer," Ms. Cook recalled. "She denied it."

M. Cristina Gutierrez, Ms. Cook's lawyer, says she doesn't understand how her client can be accused of failing to report something she didn't know about.

"It's been a witch hunt all along, and at the end of the witch hunt you test the witch, and she either drowns and that proves she is innocent, or she's burned to death and she's innocent," Ms. Gutierrez said. "Lots of other teachers tried to interview the girl, and the child denied it."

But the report by a special assistant to the school superintendent notes in a summary that "a student's denial of abuse should not absolve an educator from his or her responsibility to report child abuse."

Board members have refused to comment, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters.

But at a public session in April, board President Thomas Twombly said, "There is nothing to be gained by punitive action against employees acting in good faith. . . . We believe this matter is closed."

His remarks came in response to the County Council of PTAs' push for punishment for those who had not reported child abuse.

An investigation found a pattern in which teachers at Northeast had heard rumors about Price and students over a 20-year TTC period during which he became involved with eight students.

At Northeast and other county high schools, accusations of child abuse usually were investigated by a team of special assistants to the superintendent. Rarely were they referred to social workers or police.

Michael A. Pace, another board member, speaking at the April meeting, said, "The special investigator and the state's attorney came to the conclusion that these people were innocent cogs in a flawed machine. The machine is fixed."

Last week, recalling those remarks fueled the outrage of teachers union representatives.

Thomas J. Paolino, the president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, pointed out that in the past every teacher cleared of a crime was returned immediately to the classroom upon acquittal.

"They're holding Laurie Cook responsible for not reporting Ron Price right after they sat in public session and exonerated all the administrators and other employees at Northeast from any liability," Mr. Paolino said.

Technically, the school administration has not formally charged Ms. Cook. That will be up to Superintendent Carol S. Parham, who ultimately will recommend action to the board.

Last week's meeting with an associate superintendent marked a preliminary step in the disciplinary procedure.

Ms. Cook will have a chance to respond to the accusations, involving two counts of misconduct. Teachers can be fired for misconduct.

If Dr. Parham recommends disciplinary action, Ms. Cook will have the right to appeal to five board members or a hearing examiner.

If her case gets that far, Ms. Cook said, she will choose to have an open hearing.

"I want it done in public -- just like I had a public trial where the media printed the testimony in the paper," she said.

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