Either Laurie S. Cook is a dedicated teacher who went out of her way to make sure her students succeeded in school, or she's someone whose influence on young people must stop now.
That was the essence of 1 1/2 hours of closing arguments last night that brought to an end eight weeks of testimony that will be used to determine whether the former Northeast High School teacher, who has been accused of having a sexual relationship with a male student, should return to a classroom.
A hearing examiner is expected to issue a finding in the case by mid-February.
Ms. Cook has been fighting for her job since her acquittal in Circuit Court in December 1993 on a charge of child sex abuse.
In July, however, Superintendent Carol S. Parham accused Ms. Cook of four counts of misconduct, including having a sexual relationship with a male student -- the same charge on which Ms. Cook was acquitted.
In addition, Ms. Cook was charged with covering up for the affair another Northeast teacher was having with a female student; discussing intimate and sexual topics with students and their families; and engaging in conduct that exceeded the bounds of "professional and appropriate teacher/student relationships."
"The witnesses in the case fall into two categories," said P. Tyson Bennett, the lawyer representing the school system's case against Ms. Cook. "The 'Laurie Cook is a saint' witnesses and 'the [student] is a sinner witnesses.' Some did both. But if you look at the testimony, the fact that the student engaged in disruptive behavior does not mean the young man was not sexually abused."
Mr. Bennett also noted that Ms. Cook had admitted visiting the student's home, driving his sister to Rhode Island to look for college housing, lending the girl $200 and taking her to a nightclub that Ms. Cook testified was an establishment with a "family atmosphere."
Ms. Cook's defense, he said, "Is the 'Who Me?' defense. 'What you can prove, there's nothing wrong with, and what you can't prove, I deny.' "
Mr. Bennett said the defense argument that the male student was lying didn't hold up because Ms. Cook had admitted that the two had been alone in Ms. Cook's home.
He also noted that Ms. Cook presented no witnesses to counter testimony from a 16-year-old female Northeast student who said that to counteract rumors linking the student with a male teacher, Ms. Cook would rewrite passes readmitting her to class so that the student's name and the male teacher's name would not appear together on the slip.
Mr. Bennett quoted author Henry Brooks Adams, who wrote, "A teacher affects eternity. He can never tell when his influence stops."
"Laurie Cook's influence must stop now," Mr. Bennett concluded.
M. Cristina Gutierrez, a Baltimore lawyer representing Ms. Cook, argued that the teacher deserves to have her job back.
"We wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for that first accusation," Ms. Gutierrez said.
She dismissed the male student's allegations as the "crush of a teen-ager." The student's description of the affair was "a teen-ager's fantasy," Ms. Gutierrez said.
Regarding the testimony of the 16-year-old girl, Ms. Gutierrez noted that Mr. Bennett presented no passes as proof and no testimony "from a single teacher saying he or she had received an inappropriate pass."
She characterized Ms. Cook as a dedicated teacher who showed support for her students by staying after school to help them with work and by going to sporting events.
Ms. Gutierrez dismissed the testimony of neighbors who said Ms. Cook was at the youth's home frequently, noting they failed to come forward at the time of her trial.
"One of the women was a teacher," Ms. Gutierrez said. "It's now DTC more than two years after the event. Why didn't she come forward when Ms. Cook was arrested -- the most memory-jogging event possible?"
William M. Ferris is the hearing examiner in the case. Seven members of the eight-member school board must decide whether to approve, reject or amend his recommendation for action. One member has excused himself from the case because he represents Pasadena, where the school is.