School board member urges grade-altering policy

Idea sparked by scandals involving top officials

Howard County

April 22, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

In response to scandals involving high-ranking Howard County education officials, school board member Sandra H. French is urging the creation of school system policies that govern grade changes and spell out proper ways for public officials to advocate for their children.

"We have to have a clear-cut process, transparent to everyone," French said yesterday during a meeting with the Howard County Council.

If such measures had been in place months ago, they might have prevented the situation that has left at least three educators fighting for their jobs through legal action - including a lawsuit filed this week against the superintendent's office.

In February, former Superintendent John R. O'Rourke demoted two administrators - Deputy Superintendent Kimberly Statham and Assistant Superintendent Roger Plunkett - accused of strong-arming transcript changes for Statham's daughter at Centennial High School, which both have denied.

O'Rourke also recommended firing Oakland Mills athletic director, coach and history teacher Ken Hovet, who has been on leave since November and has not been paid since January. In a letter dated Feb. 12, O'Rourke accused Hovet of being "actively involved in changing grades in order to render [a] student eligible for athletics."

All three have appealed the decisions, but the results of their hearings won't go before the board for a final verdict until some time between mid-May and late June, said Courtney Watson, chairman of the school bord.

Hovet filed a civil suit Tuesday in Howard County Circuit Court claiming that the superintendent's office - now occupied by Sydney L. Cousin, who has replaced O'Rourke on an interim basis - wrongfully denied him access to documents he requested through the state's Public Information Act. His complaint said he needed the papers to properly prepare his appeal, and he is suing for their release as well as unspecified damages and attorney's fees.

His court complaint further claims that "the former and current superintendent have engaged in a campaign to conceal all facts regarding the grade change that would demonstrate [Hovet's] innocence and publicly smear [Hovet's] reputation" by:

Suspending Hovet without cause or explanation and withholding his pay.

Disseminating selective and confidential employment information about Hovet.

Manufacturing the results of the investigation.

And issuing "gag orders" and intimidating witnesses.

Mark Blom, school system attorney and chief of staff, who had not seen the complaint yesterday, was caught off guard by the suit.

"I'm quite surprised," he said. "There doesn't seem to be any basis for it."

Blom said the school system has worked with Hovet's attorney in releasing information and was under the impression that the process was acceptable. Hovet's complete personnel file was given to him, along with copies of press statements, grade reports and grade-change forms, certain disciplinary records and the school board's policy on academic eligibility.

Among the things denied Hovet were a witness list and statements from people interviewed during an investigation into the grade-changing allegations, along with the investigation notes.

French suggested yesterday that the school system consider clarifying its grade-changing practices by bringing more people into the process to prevent abuse, perhaps through the creation of a local school council to approve such alterations.

"I'm just throwing out ideas," she said.

Watson said she was intrigued by the idea of developing a policy that would help public officials, such as herself, know their boundaries when talking with teachers about their children.

"As an elected official, you shouldn't have to give up your right to advocate for your child; on the other hand, you have to be really careful" to ensure that your position doesn't influence a situation, she said. "It's a dilemma."

Statham has said she never used her job as leverage to alter her children's education and acted as any other parent when talking to their teachers.

"Every parent has as their most important responsibility the duty to protect the interests of their children. Parents cannot surrender this responsibility for any reason," she said in a February statement after O'Rourke announced that he was transferring her to a teaching position.

"Sadly, Mr. O'Rourke no longer recognizes my rights as a mother and a Howard County parent," she said.

Statham remains on paid leave pending the outcome of her appeal.

Plunkett, who was accused of helping Statham, assumed his new position - as administrator on special assignment - early last week after six weeks of paid leave.

Plunkett is working on projects and is helping plan the graduation schedule, high school scheduling and homecoming activities for next fall, said school system spokeswoman Patti Caplan.

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