Teacher arrest raises alarm

Privacy issues cloud city schools' hiring of man accused of abuse

December 10, 2006|By Jennifer McMenamin and Gina Davis | Jennifer McMenamin and Gina Davis,[sun reporters]

Under investigation by police for the alleged sexual abuse of a 13-year-old girl and reassigned from his classroom to a nonteaching job, English instructor Timothy N. Gounaris left the Baltimore County school system in June.

Before the summer was over, however, he had been hired to teach at a Baltimore City middle school. And less than a month into that new job, the state had revoked Gounaris' teaching certificate - perhaps unbeknownst to the city school system.

Now, in the wake of Gounaris' arrest late last month for a second-degree sex offense in the case of the middle school pupil, some education officials and parents are asking how a teacher under investigation in one school system could be hired by another just a few miles away. The scenario raises questions about whether protecting employee privacy overshadows the obligation to safeguard children.

"There ought to be some sort of way to prevent people from being passed from one system to the other," said Baltimore County school board member Meg O'Hare, who likened the situation to Roman Catholic priests being shuffled among parishes after being accused of sexually abusing boys.

But like most people interviewed, she also noted the potential hazards in trying to balance the rights of a teacher who has not been charged with a crime, with the school system's obligation to protect children from suspected abusers.

"If there are no charges, how can you notify another school system that somebody is suspected of this?" O'Hare said. "That seems un-American to me. But it seems there should be some way of handling it statewide that would prevent one system's bad situation from becoming another system's bad situation."

Complaints about Gounaris, who taught at Pine Grove Middle School in Carney, reached county police in January, and county school officials promptly reassigned him to a nonteaching job outside the school building - as is their practice with teachers accused of misconduct with students.

Gounaris, 50, resigned from the county school system in June.

On Aug. 7, as required by state regulations, the county school system asked the Maryland State Department of Education to revoke Gounaris' teaching certificate because he had resigned while under investigation for alleged misconduct with a student.

The state did so on Sept. 28, when the time for Gounaris to appeal the action had expired, according to John Smeallie, the assistant state superintendent for certification and accreditation. That meant he could not be hired to teach in any public school in Maryland.

Police, meanwhile, say they did not have enough evidence to pursue a case against Gounaris until October, when the girl, now 14, agreed to talk to detectives about what had happened between her and her English teacher during a two-week period in December 2005 at his home in the Perry Hall area.

But by then, Gounaris had been teaching eighth grade at Chinquapin Middle School for more than a month. City schools spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt said school officials did not know anything about Baltimore County's investigation into Gounaris until county police notified them Dec. 1 - two days after the instructor's arrest.

Gounaris did not respond to phone messages left at his house last week.

Baltimore school officials say it is standard procedure for the city system to check references with teachers' previous employers before hiring them, although they could not confirm specifically whether such an inquiry was made about Gounaris.

And neither Baltimore County nor Baltimore City school officials will say exactly what was asked or shared about Gounaris between the two systems' human resources departments, characterizing the matter as a personnel issue.

Labor attorneys say that Maryland law makes it difficult for employees to successfully sue their employers or former employers for defamation during a reference check.

"That is precisely so that employers will feel more free to share information with prospective employers," said Howard K. Kurman, an attorney who has worked in the field of employment law for 30 years. "Unless an employer gives out false information maliciously about an employee to a prospective employer, the employer is given qualified immunity to provide that information."

Nevertheless, he said, many employers are hesitant to speak candidly during reference checks for fear of being drawn into a lawsuit, even if they would likely win it.

Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston declined to discuss the Gounaris case because of the likelihood of litigation, but he said he understands that questions are being raised about the hiring processes.

Across the region, school systems' approaches to seeking and providing job references for teachers vary.

Stephen H. Guthrie, Carroll County's assistant superintendent of administration, said that most school systems conduct such inquiries by phone. The city, he said, sends "a simple form" with only a few basic questions about the teacher .

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