School system hopes to leave difficult year behind

Judge orders mediation to resolve Hovet case fees

August 08, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

In three weeks, the Howard County school system will begin what many hope is a quieter school year than the one before.

The 2003-2004 year was tumultuous for one of the state's highest-performing school districts. Within the past year, the school system had its image battered by four high-profile incidents: a grade-changing scandal at Oakland Mills High School involving a popular football coach; accusations that two top county school administrators abused their power by pressing for a grade change at Centennial High School; the departure of Superintendent John R. O'Rourke; and false rape allegations at Mount Hebron High School.

"There is a real concern that a system that ranks up on top has been embroiled in these kind of issues," said Ellen Giles, chairwoman of the Citizens Advisory Committee to the Board of Education. "It certainly isn't where you would like our system with our reputation to be. ... I know that the system has taken all of this very seriously."

School administrators and board members acknowledge that the last school year was tough for them, teachers, parents and students alike.

But they are optimistic that the school system and the community can recover and grow stronger by holding onto lessons learned in the wake of the incidents at Centennial and Oakland Mills. Already, the school system has taken steps to address issues including grade changes, student plagiarism and academic eligibility for sports activities.

"I think the whole summer has been about strengthening any weak areas," said board member Sandra French.

Last week, the Board of Education reversed O'Rourke's recommendation that former Oakland Mills athletic director and coach Kenneth O. Hovet Jr. be fired, saying there was no evidence to support his suspension and proposed dismissal. Hovet, a history teacher, plans to teach this fall in the county and has an interview tomorrow with a principal.

In November, the school system announced that the Oakland Mills football team had used a player whose grades were improperly changed to make him academically eligible.

Hovet was placed on administrative leave with pay, which was changed to suspension without pay in January by O'Rourke, who later recommended that Hovet be fired. O'Rourke took a buyout in February after the school board refused to renew his contract.

Questions remain

Still, unanswered questions from the school board's decision in the Hovet case linger, including issues of accountability.

The board described a systemic failure that involved multiple levels of authority, including the former superintendent's office, the school system's athletic department and the administration at Oakland Mills. The board did not implicate any specific employee, however.

"The board is interested in holding the new superintendent [Sydney L. Cousin] accountable for instituting the changes that must be made to correct the deficiencies that have been uncovered," said board Chairman Courtney Watson. "People are being held accountable at all levels of the system, and we are taking corrective action at all levels of the system."

Meanwhile, Hovet and the school system are sparring in court over money. Hovet has asked for about $118,000 in attorney fees, costs and damages related to his successful lawsuit to obtain access to school system documents for his employment appeal.

On Friday, Howard Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney ordered lawyers for Hovet and the school system to work out their differences through mediation.

"The overall desire, I would hope, of everyone is to bring this matter to a conclusion so everyone can go out and do more productive things," Sweeney said. " ... I think where the school system and the teacher ought to be focusing their attention [is] on running a good school system and on the students.

"The sooner they can turn their attention back to that, that would be the best thing," he said, telling the lawyers to report back to him in a week.

As if the community weren't jarred enough by Oakland Mills' scandal, a month later two school system administrators were accused of abusing their power by pressing for a grade change at Centennial. Those administrators, Roger Plunkett and Kimberly Statham, were demoted by O'Rourke, but the board cleared them and reversed O'Rourke's action in May.

In April, an incident that began with sexual contact in a bathroom at Mount Hebron High School spiraled into false rape allegations against three students, who were jailed for six days.

The accuser recanted, and the charges were dropped.

A new coach

On Saturday, the Oakland Mills varsity football team will begin practice with a new coach, Richard Hendershott. It will represent a fresh start.

"I have every confidence, with the new superintendent and the board squarely behind us, that we will move forward," said Heather Tepe, a parent of a son who graduated from Oakland Mills in June and another son who's a rising senior there.

"I'm not so naive to think that this is all over. I'm not so green that I think we'll walk in the first day of school and think it's all behind us. But I believe in this community, and I believe in its resiliency and its loyalty, and I know that we will shine through all of this when it's all said and done."

Sun staff writer Lisa Goldberg contributed to this article.

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