Group defends school head

Govans principal who wrote letter for ex-con might retire

July 08, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

Parents, children and community members rallied outside Govans Elementary School in Baltimore last night for the principal, who was asked to retire after writing a letter in support of a teacher who pleaded guilty to distributing cocaine.

A lawyer for Edith M. Jones, who has been the principal of Govans for eight years, said the school system knew that special-education teacher Martius Harding was a convicted felon when it hired him in 2002. The lawyer, Ron Kowitz, also said Jones contacted the system's legal office last summer after learning of Harding's guilty plea in a cocaine possession case.

A system spokeswoman, Edie House, has repeatedly declined to discuss the matter, saying it is a personnel issue.

Harding pleaded guilty in August to having more than 5 pounds of cocaine in his trunk. He taught for the entire school year before being sentenced June 16 to seven years in prison. Jones, using school stationery, wrote a letter to the federal judge pleading for leniency at his sentencing hearing.

Kowitz said the letter was "something done routinely by all employers for employees that have done a good job."

About 50 people attended yesterday's rally, but many of them were children and some were not well-acquainted with Jones, who was not there and referred all questions to her attorney.

"I don't really know her," said Lisa Martin, 11, who attends Glenmount Elementary/Middle School but wore a T-shirt that said "Mrs. Jones helps her students" and joined in chants of "We want Mrs. Jones!" on the steps outside the school. She explained that her cousins attend Govans, and she plans to do community service there next school year.

The rally, organized by Jones' daughter, Keona, was promoted in the community in recent days with the distribution of fliers and a letter saying a "great injustice" was happening to the principal. The letter is signed by "The Govans Staff" and says that "the staff here at Govans is in 100% support of Mrs. Jones as Principal and values her leadership."

David McFadden, a school psychologist at Govans, said he and a number of other staff members are not supporting Jones and were never asked their opinion for the letter.

"I really resent someone saying I have taken a position I have not taken," he said. "It's exactly the opposite of what I think and what I feel."

Linda Muhammad, the school's PTA president and a leader at the rally, said she did not know who had written the letter, but there was a "consensus" among Govans' staff to support Jones. Kowitz said that "99 percent of the community, the staff and the parents are very, very supportive of her."

School systems must perform criminal background checks on all prospective employees. The letter distributed to the community says Harding wrote to the city school system's human resources department before he was hired to explain previous charges against him. It says that only the human resources department can hire and fire employees.

In May 2001, the year before he was hired, Harding pleaded guilty to participating in an elaborate Internet fraud in which he stole tens of thousands of dollars' worth of goods, including a late-model Jeep and two new motorcycles.

Muhammad said parents are organizing a community forum for July 18 to demand answers of school system officials. "How do felons slip through the background checks of Baltimore City public schools?" Muhammad asked, claiming that Jones is being used as a scapegoat and saying that "scapegoating is not an option for us."

She said Jones has been given until Aug. 1 to tell the system whether she will retire.

At the rally, Muhammad and other parents portrayed Jones, a 33-year veteran of the city schools, as a caring woman who puts in long hours, forges community partnerships and promotes parental involvement. They said she has raised the school's test scores, cut the number of student suspensions and brought an atmosphere of stability. One boy said into the microphone that she was "the best principal in the world."

But Melanie Linton, whose 11-year-old son was in Harding's class of emotionally disturbed children for the past three years, said in a phone interview that Jones and Harding were unresponsive when she complained that her son was not getting the help he needed.

"It's so unfair," she said. "My son wasn't given a fair chance in his education."

Linton said she is outraged that Jones allowed her son to be taught by a drug dealer. "I look at it that his life was at risk," she said. "I don't know who that gentleman was dealing with. Let's just say he decided he didn't want to pay the people he got this [cocaine] from. What if they shot up the school? How could they explain to me that my child was in class and the school got shot up and [Jones] knew what was going on?"

A father of five who drove a Mercedes to school, the 28-year-old Harding was working at Govans without a teaching certificate. While state law says that a teaching certificate should be suspended or revoked if a teacher pleads guilty to a "controlled dangerous substance offense," officials have said Harding did not have a certificate to revoke.

Harding's lawyer has said his descent into drug dealing was prompted by his need to pay lawyers in a custody dispute with the mother of his 8-year-old daughter.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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