Don't ask, don't tell?

December 12, 2006

How could Timothy N. Gounaris have been hired by a Baltimore City school amid allegations that he had sexually abused a then 13-year-old female student while teaching in Baltimore County? Clearly, there was a communications breakdown between county and city school officials - either questions that were not asked or information that was not given. Since Baltimore County knew more about this teacher's history, officials there had the burden of signaling potential problems.

After having taught in Harford County for more than a decade, Mr. Gounaris moved to the Baltimore County school system in 2001. He was teaching English at Pine Grove Middle School in the Carney area when the mother of one of his students raised concerns about his contacts with her daughter. It appears that school officials reassigned him to nonteaching duties as soon as they were made aware of the allegations in January 2006.

In June, he resigned from the county school system; he was hired by the Baltimore school system in August before he was charged with any crime. By the end of September, however, the Maryland State Department of Education revoked his teaching certificate, based at least in part on the unresolved allegations as outlined by the county. Last month, sexual offense charges were filed against him after the young woman, now 14, gave police more information.

This case is somewhat awkward because Mr. Gounaris had not been charged with anything at the time he was hired by the city school system, although a county judge had ordered him to stay away from his former student. Since hiring is generally a local decision, individual districts tend to rely on each other to flag problems with applicants, often through a broad-based question such as "Would you hire this person again?" A simple "No" can speak volumes. But city school officials, who routinely conduct criminal background checks through state and federal data bases, were apparently unaware of any problems with Mr. Gounaris until after his arrest.

Perhaps city school officials didn't ask the right questions. But Baltimore County officials had the relevant information and they alerted the state department of education. In a case involving improper teacher conduct, it was incumbent upon them to give Baltimore school officials better answers.

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