Principal loses job for threat to student Her scare tactics exceeded bounds, school official says

November 07, 1998|By Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson | Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

An East Baltimore principal has been forced out of her job for suggesting to an 8-year-old boy that his penis might be cut off if he did not stop making sexually explicit comments to his female classmates.

School officials say Colyn Harrington, the principal at Johnston Square Elementary School, intended to scare the boy and not physically harm him. But Harrington went too far, said the principal's supervisor, Barry Williams, when she had a janitor bring a dinner knife into her office and put it down on the desk in front of the boy.

Harrington, 63, left the building Monday and is on a leave of absence. She will retire later in the year and cannot return to city schools, school officials say.

The boy received psychological counseling and appears not to have suffered any long-term harm, according to school officials. "The child has an extremely good relationship with the principal, and the principal was using what she thought was old-fashioned scare tactics," Williams said.

Williams compared the principal's comment to other expressions such as, "I'm going to skin you alive."

Harrington declined to comment. "You can publish what you wish, but whatever you are publishing is inaccurate," she said earlier this week.

The janitor also declined to comment, saying that he had been told by school officials not to speak about the incident.

On Oct. 4, school officials allege, Harrington brought the child, a third-grader, into her office to discipline him for repeating a vulgar expression commonly used as an invitation to oral sex.

Harrington allegedly told the child that maybe if he didn't have a penis, he would not ask little girls to perform oral sex on him. Then a janitor walked into the room and placed a knife on the desk.

While the boy was in her office, the principal called his guardian and told her what she was telling the boy.

Harrington never touched the knife on the desk.

A staff member at the school reported the incident to school officials, according to sources. Williams said he learned about the incident several days after it happened and immediately went to the school.

He had the boy, described as bright but from a troubled family, evaluated at a Johns Hopkins clinic for post-traumatic stress disorders. The child is undergoing counseling at a local mental health clinic.

"According to the psychiatric report, he is not suffering from post-traumatic stress," said Williams, the school's mid-city area executive officer. "He has been at school every day. He continues to be the same child he was."

After the incident, he saw the boy go up to the principal, give her a hug and then run off to class.

He said he left the principal in the school for nearly a month because he determined from interviews at the school and by watching the principal that no child was in "imminent" danger. He said he conducted a detailed investigation, interviewing people who witnessed or had heard about the incident and people who have known Harrington over the course of her career.

A 40-year veteran of the city schools, Harrington became the principal at Johnston Square last year. Williams said she was well-regarded there and appeared to have a good relationship with students.

School board member Ed Brody said he believed that Harrington had "made improper threats to a student." He said Williams "fully investigated the incident, gathered all the facts and recommended the appropriate action."

"There's nothing more to say than that," Brody said. "It has been handled."

School officials, however, did not tell other teachers or parents in the school about the incident. After Harrington left, Williams said, he met with the staff and told them that the principal was on leave and would be retiring. He gave no reason, saying it was a personnel matter he couldn't discuss.

He said he did not notify other parents because he believed the incident was an isolated one.

But John Gibbons, director of the University of Maryland's post-traumatic stress disorder clinic, said he would have talked openly about the event with faculty and informed parents by a letter.

"I would meet with the faculty and give them an explanation for what happened. Just to remove her and not talk about it is to say, 'Let's pretend it didn't happen,' " Gibbons said. "It's not great publicity, but you've got to deal with the issue."

Gibbons, a psychologist who works with children who have had traumatic experiences, said youngsters often have nightmares, develop a school phobia and become anxious.

Pub Date: 11/07/98

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