Schools may care about kids, but it's not a rule

July 03, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

This is a tale of two guys and one word.

The word is "may." As in the state law that says school systems "may" suspend or fire teachers for acts of moral turpitude. Like, say, being convicted of felony drug dealing. Or as in a rule for Baltimore public schools that says students who flunked courses the previous semester "may become eligible for all activities by completing summer school" (my italics).

Both guys in this tale happen to be former Baltimore high school wrestlers, but that's merely coincidental. Martius Harding made the news often when he wrestled for Dunbar and later McDonogh in the early to mid-1990s. He's made it a lot more in 2006, but probably not in ways he'd planned.

After Harding pleaded guilty last August to a drug dealing charge, a federal court judge sentenced him to seven years in prison. Harding was a teacher at Govans Elementary School, where he had taught since 2002. He continued teaching right up until the time he was sentenced, which was at the end of the 2005-2006 school year.

In 2001, Harding also pleaded guilty to an Internet credit card scam when he was a student at West Virginia University. Somehow, he managed to get hired by Baltimore's school system.

And, somehow, folks in the system defended that hiring. School spokeswoman Edie House, in a Sun story by reporters Matthew Dolan and Sara Neufeld, said that "whatever the Maryland law says, that's where we are" regarding why Harding was allowed to continue teaching.

In other words, honchos down at North Avenue were determining the law that says school systems "may" suspend or fire personnel for "immorality" as meaning they had the option to either fire Harding, suspend him or let him continue teaching.

That's fair enough. The word "may" can indeed be interpreted just as the folks in Baltimore's school system interpreted it in Harding's case. His two felony convictions aside, it's possible there may be more to Harding than what we've learned about his criminal history.

Maybe that's why Edith M. Jones, the principal at Govans Elementary School, sent a letter to U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett pleading for him to show some leniency toward Harding. Jones, whose letter was quoted in the Dolan-Neufeld story, called Harding a "very kind, caring man, with an unbelievable spirit as a father and teacher."

So we have at least one principal and God knows how many administrators at North Avenue who were willing to cut Harding a break and liberally interpret the word "may" in his favor.

Now how do you suppose school honchos interpreted that same word in DeShawn Barrett's case, just two short years prior to Harding pleading guilty?

Like Harding, Barrett was a wrestler. He placed third in the state 4A/3A tournament in his junior year. In his senior year Barrett won the state 4A/3A title and ran up a 73-0 record while cruising to a national title in the 215-pound weight class.

But in the fall of 2003, Barrett was just a guy trying to play on Patterson High School's football team. He had transferred from Mervo, where he struggled academically as a sophomore, failing geometry, mechanical drawing and machine shop in the spring of 2003. Since Mervo is a citywide school, Barrett had to transfer to his neighborhood school, Patterson.

School rules were very clear: Barrett couldn't play football for Patterson after having flunked three courses at Mervo. But Barrett used the summer productively. He couldn't make up the mechanical drawing and machine shop courses in summer school, but he made up the geometry class. He took classes in chemistry, English and American government and passed them, too.

So when the football coach, principal and academic coach at Patterson looked at Barrett's summer school transcript and the rule which read "students may become eligible for all activities by completing summer school," they interpreted the word in Barrett's favor, much as school honchos interpreted the word "may" in state law in Harding's favor.

Alas, the honchos didn't see it that way. They declared Barrett ineligible and kicked him off the football team. It took a court case to get him reinstated.

The moral to this tale is how school system leaders interpreted the word "may" in the case of a teacher who was a convicted felon when he was hired and who subsequently pleaded guilty to another felony - and how they interpreted it in the case of a student, one of the people those same leaders say are their top priority.

We hear it from school system honchos all the time: It's all about the students; we love the students; we care about the students.

I have grandkids who are still in this school system. Seeing how the folks who run it care about students frankly makes my blood curdle.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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