A crook in the classroom

June 26, 2006

How in the world did Baltimore school officials allow a man who had previously been convicted of fraud to teach for a year after he pleaded guilty to possessing and distributing cocaine? The school system is not saying, but before leaving office this week, schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland should make sure that administrators get to the bottom of the case and take action against any responsible parties.

Martius Harding taught fourth- and fifth-grade special-education students at Govans Elementary School and supervised a character-building club for boys called Govans Gentlemen. Before he started teaching there in 2002, he had pleaded guilty the previous year to felony fraud charges related to a credit card scam on the Internet. During his time at Govans, he apparently did not have a teaching certificate, nor was he working toward full certification.

Instead, according to federal court papers, in 2003 he became involved with a group dealing in cocaine, which he converted into crack that was sold on the streets of Baltimore and for which he was arrested in early 2005. Last August, he pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine.

Mr. Harding may or may not have told administrators at Govans about his arrest. But U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett, who handled the case, instructed Mr. Harding's lawyer to tell school officials when the plea agreement was finalized in August. A letter was sent to Edith Jones, the principal at Govans, and she presumably received it. One school principal sent Judge Bennett a letter of support for Mr. Harding, but neither the letter nor its author has been made public.

Expressing support is one thing, but keeping Mr. Harding in the classroom is quite another. Yet he continued teaching until about a week ago, when Judge Bennett sentenced him to seven years in prison, with four years' probation and a $10,000 fine.

The school system has been mum on how thoroughly Mr. Harding was investigated before being hired - and a recent audit shows that the State Department of Education has been lax in keeping people with criminal backgrounds, including sex offenders, out of public schools. But it's clear that Mr. Harding, at least, had no business in a classroom. Ms. Copeland should direct the school system to re-examine its personnel policies and to answer the questions: What did Govans administrators know about Mr. Harding's problems, when did they know and why didn't they do something?

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