Tale of Two Teachers

April 21, 1995

Two teachers at Northeast High. Both take a personal interest in their students. Both encourage their charges to go to college. Both drive students to places they need to go. Yet one teacher is memorialized. The other is vilified. What's the difference?

The teacher memorialized was Harry J. Lentz Jr., the high school baseball coach and history teacher who died earlier this month of an inoperable brain tumor. On Monday, hundreds of Mr. Lentz's former students turned out for a ceremony to name Northeast's baseball field in his honor.

The teacher vilified is Northeast science teacher Laurie S. Cook, who has been fired by the school board on charges of professional misconduct and sexual abuse of a student.

We do not know if Ms. Cook is guilty of wrongdoing. We do know that a Circuit Court jury found her innocent of the abuse charges and an administrative hearing officer found insufficient cause to fire her. Nevertheless, after reviewing the hearing transcripts, the school board found her unsuited to be a teacher and voted to fire her. Ironically, Mr. Lentz was summoned by the school board to an administrative hearing on sexual harassment charges two

years ago. His charges were dropped, however, after his supporters descended on school headquarters and his accuser refused to testify.

At Monday's ceremony, former students recalled how Mr. Lentz had driven them to college and, in at least one case, arranged for a student to stay with his parents. Some of these same kinds of actions have been cited by the school board as evidence that Ms. Cook is guilty of misconduct. These actions include taking a student home from school, helping his sister get into college, driving her to school and buying her books.

Ms. Cook lawyers argue that their client was simply acting as a concerned teacher who went the extra mile to help her students. The school board says such behavior lends credence to the more serious allegation of sexual abuse.

Such widely different interpretations of the same actions no doubt leave teachers wondering how involved they can become. If they try to take an interest in students' lives, meet them after class, offer them a ride home or go the extra mile to get them into college, will they be praised for selfless dedication? Or suspected of professional misconduct?

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