Student discipline or case of assault? Increasingly, courts and school officials are asked to decide

December 22, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

For three months last summer, a teacher at a Howard County elementary school stood accused of assaulting an 8-year-old student by ripping a chain from his neck.

Although criminal charges were dropped, the teacher felt the sting of a trend in the county school system. More teachers are being accused of physically or sexually assaulting their students than in years past.

In about half of all complaints, teachers are cleared by courts and school officials of wrongdoing.

But school officials say they are obligated by law to report and investigate every claim of child abuse brought to their attention. In protecting the youths in their halls, they say, they err in favor of students.

State teachers union officials say the number of assault accusations against Maryland teachers have doubled in the past few years, a trend mirrored by the increase in Howard County. They call it a product of a hypersensitive, litigious society in which classrooms are another place with potential liability.

Such accusations also weaken the authority of teachers at a time when student suspensions and disobedience in Howard County schools are on the rise, local union officials say.

Karen Dunlop, president of the county teachers union, said Howard teachers are under siege.

"It gives kids who aren't old enough to know better a pretty damning and powerful weapon to use when they are angry," said Dunlop, whose union has nearly 3,000 member teachers and support personnel. "You might tap them on the shoulder to draw their attention -- that's unwanted touching."

The number of accusations against Howard's 2,770 teachers increased from four in the 1992-1993 school year to 10 in 1995-1996, Associate Superintendent James R. McGowan said. This fall, five teachers have been accused by students, he said.

Dunlop says her office receives an average of one call a week from a teacher seeking aid in defending against accusations of some form of assault, up from one a month three years ago.

Of the assault complaints filed with the school system against Howard teachers since 1992, 53 percent resulted in the teacher being cleared of wrongdoing by school authorities and investigators.

Difficult situation

"There is a paranoia [among parents] that is completely out of control," Dunlop said, "yet at the same time you don't want to have these accusations go uninvestigated. That would be awful."

When teachers are accused by students or their parents of assault, they generally are removed from contact with students and placed on administrative duties until investigations are complete, which can take a day or several months.

Walter Levin, chief counsel for the Maryland State Teachers Association, said the effect on teachers "is absolutely devastating. You don't really go into [teaching] for the money. You do it because you love the kids."

Handled in system

Most complaints against teacher are handled within the school system. Punishment for inappropriate actions can range from a letter of reprimand to dismissal.

All cases are forwarded to the county Department of Social Services, and those deemed serious by DSS and police investigators are sent to the county state's attorney's office, but most never make it to court.

In the past two years, the state's attorney's office has reviewed seven cases. During that time, 15 complaints were filed with the school system. Of the seven, the office prosecuted four. Two resulted in convictions and two in acquittals.

The acquittals involved two Elkridge Elementary teachers who went to trial this fall on battery charges in separate cases. The judges ruled that even if the teachers had touched the students, they were acting within their rights as teachers, according to a judge in one case and attorneys on both sides in the other.

In place of parents

"Teachers act in loco parentis," said one of the judges, District Judge Louis A. Becker, referring to the legal concept that allows teachers to stand in the place of parents while students are at school, granting them the right to use reasonable force to discipline or control a child.

In one of those two cases, the Elkridge Elementary teacher was accused of battery in June after he grabbed a 10-year-old boy by the wrist and took him into the hallway after the boy refused to participate in class, according to charging documents in the case.

The teacher's grip left three marks on the underside of the boy's right forearm that appeared to be broken blood vessels, according to a police report.

The teacher's attorney, Thomas C. Morrow, argued that the teacher did not intend to cause harm, according to court records.

Morrow also argued that the teacher had the right to use reasonable force to control his students, according to court records.

The Sun is not identifying the teacher or others cleared of charges because the teachers were acquitted by the courts and fear their reputations would be further damaged if they were identified.

Some of the teachers are seeking to have their court records expunged.

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