Letter sparks investigation of school officials

Anonymous writer alleges two acted to change grade

Statham and Plunkett accused

O'Rourke hires agency to look into allegations

Howard County

December 09, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Howard County schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said yesterday that he has hired an outside agency to investigate allegations that a deputy superintendent intervened to change the grade of a relative.

An unsigned letter accuses Assistant Superintendent Roger L. Plunkett and Deputy Superintendent Kimberly Statham of "unethical behavior" by using their positions to improperly alter the transcript of one of Statham's relatives, who is a student at Centennial High School. It also claims Statham's husband, Michael V. Statham, a former Prince George's county attorney, verbally intimidated school staff members.

The letter allegedly was written by a teacher and was sent late last week to the school board, the governor, the county executive and multiple media outlets, including The Sun.

"Given the serious nature of the charges, a full investigation is warranted. That's being conducted right now and it will be complete," O'Rourke said.

Kimberly Statham denied any impropriety. "I welcome a full investigation, and I'm confident that a fair investigation will reveal that there has been no inappropriate conduct," she said.

Plunkett declined to comment, under O'Rourke's advice, as did Centennial Principal Lynda Mitic, who announced this month that she is retiring Jan. 1.

In a statement released yesterday, Board of Education members voiced their support of the administrators.

"We have confidence in Dr. Statham and Mr. Plunkett, and we urge the citizens of Howard County to keep an open mind, as is the Board, and let the process move forward in an atmosphere of respect for the rights of all those involved," the statement said.

Though no evidence of misconduct has been unearthed, O'Rourke said he has removed Plunkett from an investigation that the assistant superintendent had been heading, which is looking into inappropriate grade changes at Oakland Mills High School that forced its football team to forfeit the season.

"These are separate issues, separate incidents," O'Rourke said, adding that the move was made to "keep things clean" and did not imply any wrongdoing by Plunkett.

O'Rourke said the school system receives allegations from nameless parties from time to time, but generally doesn't give them credence or investigation -- internal or external. The difference this time is in the severity of the accusations and the people at whom they are directed: O'Rourke's assistants.

"The people who are involved are some of my closest associates. I have appointed them to their current positions. Now, I am still committed to dealing with them in an appropriate way, but there should be no question about the objectivity of the investigation," O'Rourke said, explaining why he has hired Chesapeake Investigative Associates of Towson to handle the matter.

The investigation is centering on two alleged incidents involving the altering of the student's transcript. The letter accuses Plunkett of intervening on Statham's behalf.

The unprecedented nature of the probe has left O'Rourke unable to say whether he will publicize the results, which he expects within several weeks.

"There will be a series of interviews, then we'll just see where it lays," he said.

But O'Rourke said he was troubled by the anonymous nature of the accusations, which don't offer Statham and Plunkett the chance to face their accuser. O'Rourke said that was unacceptable, regardless of the reasoning.

"There are ways for people to raise issues and take responsibility for raising those issues, but effectively remain anonymous," he said, adding that he doesn't "know of any case where someone lost their job or suffered a consequence by revealing something [thought to be] a violation."

O'Rourke said he is looking into the origin of the letter as well as the allegations it contained, and that the range of potential repercussions for the accuser and the accused is wide open.

"It could be as serious, depending upon the outcome of the investigation, as serious as the person losing their position," O'Rourke said. "Everything is speculative."

The letter writer may also face federal sanctions if he or she is found to have violated the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act -- which protects the privacy of education records -- by distributing information about the child's academic performance.

"This is the very beginning stage of the investigation. All of my options are open," O'Rourke said, adding that his commitment is to the "full integrity" of the school system.

"There will be absolutely no compromise in that integrity," he said.

Kimberly Statham has been widely praised for developing the Comprehensive Plan for Accelerated School Improvement, which aims to raise the achievement of every Howard child.

She recently graduated from an elite superintendent training school. She was recommended for the professional development program by University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who worked with Statham in Montgomery County and called her "a strong academic leader."

Plunkett was added to O'Rourke's staff in 2001 after he was credited by many with turning around Wilde Lake High School while principal there, making Columbia's oldest high school cleaner, safer and more education-centered.

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