Nearly a year after being acquitted of child sex abuse charges, Northeast High School teacher Laurie S. Cook begins tonight her fight to regain her teaching job.
Six months ago, Superintendent Carol S. Parham recommended firing the 34-year-old biology teacher based on four administrative charges of alleged misconduct.
The charges Ms. Cook faces are similar to those she faced during her trial, when she was charged with having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old male student.
In her letter, Dr. Parham also accused Ms. Cook of having an "inappropriate relationship of a personal and sexual nature" with a male student and of having inappropriate contacts with students and family members.
Ms. Cook, who has an administrative job in the school system, also is charged with writing passes for students for improper reasons and with permitting students to miss classes. Any of the alleged offenses is cause for dismissal.
The rare public hearing on these charges is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. and will be held in the school board's meeting room at the Board of Education's central offices on Riva Road in Annapolis.
M. Cristina Gutierrez, the Baltimore attorney who defended Ms. Cook at trial, said she and her client are prepared for the hearing.
"[Ms. Cook] has never waivered in her defense. She is innocent," said Ms. Gutierrez. "A hearing is a different ballgame than a trial. There's a lesser standard of proof. To some extent it means we will be able to enter evidence we might not have been able to get admitted in court."
The school system's charges against Ms. Cook stem from an investigation conducted after her trial ended Dec. 10. The investigation was part of a procedure introduced last year because the school system had been criticized for its handling of cases in which teachers were accused of sexually abusing students.
Until last December teachers acquitted of criminal charges were automatically returned to their classrooms. But now, the school system launches its own probe to decide whether to return a teacher to class.
After receiving notice of Dr. Parham's recommendation, Ms. Cook filed an appeal with the eight-member Board of Education. The board named local attorney William Ferris to hear the case. Mr. Ferris will recommend action to the school board, which will vote whether to uphold Dr. Parham's recommendation.
If the board sides with Dr. Parham to fire her, Ms. Cook will be able to appeal to the state Board of Education. If Ms. Cook prevails, she will continue to work for the school system. She has said she hopes to return to the classroom.
Ms. Gutierrez has blamed Ms. Cook's prosecution, and firing, on the "circus atmosphere" that surrounded last year's arrest of Ronald W. Price, a Northeast teacher who, during interviews on nationally syndicated television shows, admitted to his sexual relationships with students.
Price was later convicted on three counts of child abuse and is serving a 21-year sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup. He's also on the witness list that P. Tyson Bennett, the Board of Education's attorney, gave Ms. Gutierrez yesterday.
"That was the only surprise," she said. "We certainly are dismayed that this is another attempt to make this a circus."
Also yesterday, Baltimore and national television stations scrambled to get a court ruling on Mr. Ferris' decision to bar television cameras and recording devices from the hearing room.
"We're not taking a position on that," said Ms. Gutierrez. "We certainly don't want a media circus inside the hearing room."