Guilty until Proven Innocent

March 17, 1995

It is inconceivable that a person who has been twice exonerated should still be punished. But that is what is happening to Laurie S. Cook, the Northeast High School science teacher now that the Anne Arundel County Board of Education has voted to fire her.

Twenty-two months ago, Ms. Cook was arrested and charged with having sex with a student. A Circuit Court jury heard the evidence and acquitted her. Then last summer, Superintendent Carol S. Parham tried to dismiss Ms. Cook by filing administrative charges of misconduct. The school board decided not to hear the case itself and hired an independent hearing examiner whom it trusted to weigh the evidence and to recommend appropriate action. Hearing Examiner William Ferris spent 48 hours conducting public hearings and listened to testimony from more than 40 witnesses.

He needn't have bothered.

Although he recommended that the Anne Arundel school system retain Ms. Cook and put her back in the classroom, the board ignored the hearing examiner's advice and Wednesday voted 5-2 to fire her. In doing so, the board not only made a farce of the painstaking administrative hearings, it capriciously disregarded the basic premise of the American legal system that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

Perhaps board members simply couldn't bear to accept defeat in such a high-profile case. Perhaps they had already made up their minds based on what they heard before the hearings began.

Whatever the reason, it is hard to believe the Anne Arundel school board based its decision upon the evidence. The board members did not attend the public hearings, but in reading the transcripts decided to believe the testimony of two witnesses whom Mr. Ferris found untrustworthy.

In fact, one school board member -- Thomas Florestano -- cast the deciding vote to fire Ms. Cook, even though he did not attend the closing arguments and Mr. Ferris recommended that he recuse himself. Now Ms. Cook and her supporters (including the state teachers union) have vowed to continue to fight for her job by appealing to the State Board of Education. That means yet another full-blown round of hearings.

Perhaps the school board needs a refresher in high school civics. Ms. Cook may indeed be guilty of unprofessional conduct, but the board took two cracks in the judicial arena and failed to prove it. To ignore those verdicts is to endorse tyranny.

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