Howard teacher found stabbed in apparent robbery

September 28, 1994|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Sun Staff Writer

In a rare incident of violence in a Howard County school, a health teacher was stabbed with a kitchen knife in an apparent robbery early yesterday morning at Howard High School in Ellicott City.

Kathleen Johnston, 46, was found by a student lying semiconscious on the floor in her office about 6:45 a.m., about 15 minutes after she arrived at school. An 8-inch serrated kitchen knife with a brown wooden handle was found next to her, said Howard County police spokesman Sgt. Steve Keller.

Ms. Johnston, a health and physical education teacher at the school for 21 years, told detectives immediately after the attack that she had been accosted and stabbed by two men. She told them an undetermined amount of money had been taken, but she was unable to provide a detailed description of her assailants, Sergeant Keller said.

"We need to reinterview the woman. Her condition was fluctuating throughout the day, so we weren't able to determine exactly what happened," said Howard County police Sgt. Pete D'Antuono.

Ms. Johnston, an Elkridge resident, was reported by police and school officials to be in stable condition at Howard County General Hospital about 11 a.m. But a hospital spokeswoman refused to provide any information, citing a request by the Johnston family.

Although classes continued uninterrupted at Howard High yesterday, teachers and students appeared shocked as word of the incident spread at the school of 1,500 students and 89 teachers. County police and school officials said the stabbing is the only life-threatening attack on a teacher in a Howard County school in memory.

"This has sent a shock wave through not just the school but the entire system," said Patti Caplan, a spokeswoman for the county school system.

A crisis intervention team of at least five guidance counselors was brought into the school, which is located on Route 108 between Ellicott City and Columbia, before noon. An all-faculty meeting was held at the end of the day.

The school's principal, Eugene L. Streagle Jr., announced at 10:25 a.m. over the school's intercom system that Ms. Johnston had been found unconscious in her office. Just before students were dismissed at 2 p.m., he made a second announcement, saying that she had been stabbed and apparently was the victim of a robbery. He declined to speak with reporters.

Ms. Johnston's husband, James Johnston, 47, also works at the school teaching music theory and directing the school band. Substitute Johnstonteachers filled in for both of them yesterday.

Neither teachers nor students could think of any reason why someone would harm Ms. Johnston, uniformly describing her as a friendly but strict teacher who taught health to every ninth-grader and insisted that students pay attention in her class.

"She was a really good teacher. When I came here in the middle of my freshman year, she made sure to be real nice to me and help me," said senior Anna Salajegheh, 16. "I don't know what could have happened."

It is not unusual for teachers to be in the school at 6:30 a.m. because the school day at Howard High runs from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Ms. Caplan said.

School doors are unlocked at 5:30 a.m., and many teachers regularly arrive between 6 a.m. and 6:15 a.m. to prepare lesson plans and meet with students, she said.

But Dave Glenn, a guidance counselor who is in his sixth year at the school, expressed some concern about the security of Ms. Johnston's office, which is without a phone and is isolated on the southeast end of the building, near the gym and away from other offices.

"The teachers are all real concerned, especially the female teachers who come here early," Mr. Glenn said. "Maybe women who come here alone in the morning should wait to enter the building until someone else comes along. . . . There are only four administrators, and they can't cover the whole building."

There are no security guards at any school in Howard County, but the subject has been discussed by the county school board several times, Ms. Caplan said.

"We are hesitant to create that kind of climate in the schools," Ms. Caplan said. "And we really haven't had a need for it before."

The only other serious attack on a county teacher, Ms. Caplan said, was the murder of home instructor Shirley Rue Mullinix by a student in the student's home in March 1992.

Administrators are scheduled to meet today to discuss the issue of security, Ms. Caplan said.

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