Charge against teacher is rejected by appeals court Statements to police didn't violate statute, ruling says

January 17, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday that an Anne Arundel County teacher charged with leaving a blind and handicapped student in a storage closet for three hours and lying about it to police may not be charged with obstruction of justice.

The decision by the Court of Appeals in the case of Susan Hope Pagano, 40, has prosecutors considering whether to recharge and try her on a lesser count of misconduct in office.

"We'll have to look at the opinion and discuss it," said William Roessler, deputy state's attorney.

Ms. Pagano, a Columbia resident, was indicted by a county grand jury March 30, 1994, on charges of misconduct in office and obstruction of justice.

She was charged after one of her students at Ruth Parker Eason School in Millersville was brought home from school on Dec. 10, 1993, crying and with bruises and cuts on her arms, prosecutors said. The girl's father took her to North Arundel Hospital, where emergency room personnel called police because they believed she had been abused.

The investigation revealed that the then-16-year-old, who is strapped to a wheelchair and has the capacity of an infant, had been placed in a storage closet for three hours, prosecutors said.

The appeals court ruled unanimously yesterday that Judge H. Chester Goudy Jr. was correct when he dismissed the obstruction of justice count in 1994. There had been no judicial proceedings when Ms. Pagano made her statements to police and allegedly encouraged two teachers' aides to lie about the incident.

"The statute prohibits only actions aimed at obstructing or impeding a judicial proceeding. Pagano's alleged actions may have obstructed a police investigation, but did not violate [the statute]," Chief Judge Robert Murphy wrote in an 11-page ruling.

Prosecutors had appealed Judge Goudy's decision and dismissed the misconduct charge, pending yesterday's ruling.

Mr. Roessler said Ms. Pagano may still be tried on a charge of misconduct in office, a common law offense with no set jail term or penalties.

Jane Doyle, a schools spokeswoman, said Ms. Pagano is working in the county school's special education department in an administrative capacity.

Ms. Pagano declined to comment, but Roland Walker, her lawyer, said the case has been "a terrible drain" for his client.

"She's a dedicated teacher," he said. "It's a job that's important to her and she's had that role completely taken away."

The girl's father said yesterday that he was disappointed by the court's decision and threatened to file a federal suit against Ms. Pagano and the county schools.

"Something's got to be done about this," he said.

He said his daughter, who cannot speak, was traumatized by the incident and refused to let anyone touch her for weeks afterward. The child has been handicapped since she touched a defective television antenna and suffered a severe electrical shock when she was 18 months old.

A settlement with the television manufacturer enabled the father to set up a trust fund to pay for 24-hour nursing care, a specially equipped van and 12 surgeries for his daughter.

The girl, now 18, no longer is in the school. "I want her in school, but I don't trust those people," the father said.

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