The response to sex cases very different today

Advocates note quick, transparent response, compared with past incidents in school systems

January 14, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,[sun reporter]

The arrest of two Howard County high school teachers last week on charges of sexually abusing students sent shock waves through the county, but to Ellen Mugmon, the alternative is far worse.

When the Ellicott City mother and children's advocate began crusading to change Howard County school system policies for these kinds of incidents two decades ago, the reception was very different.

"School systems in the past used to pass the trash," by firing teachers, who would then often go to another school or another state, she said. "They used to have them quietly resign."

Mugmon was a county PTA leader then, and she has spent the last two decades pushing for changes in state laws and local policies.

In 1985, there was no legal way for state officials to revoke a teacher's certification. Even state officials did not ask people applying for teaching jobs if they had ever been convicted of a crime, or lost a job due to immoral or unprofessional conduct. That meant offending teachers from elsewhere could get jobs in Maryland with little fear of discovery.

Worse, Mugmon said, a report of abuse from a child would be often be greeted with skepticism, or perhaps with an in-house investigation by school officials who had no training in child sexual abuse.

"The main problem was that they would investigate prior to reporting it. Maybe they move the teacher -- maybe not. They had no expertise, and they would alert the teacher first."

Teachers who resigned left with a clean record, making it easy to obtain work elsewhere.

On Friday, county police announced the arrest of River Hill High School teacher Alan Meade Beier, 52, of River's Edge, Columbia, on sexual child abuse, assault and sex offense charges.

The arrest came after a 16-year-old boy told police that the teacher took photos of him wearing no clothes in school Monday evening. Later, a 17-year-old girl reported being fondled in class twice since last spring.

Also last week, Joseph Ellis, 25, a teacher at Glenelg High School, was arrested and charged with several sex crimes, accused by two female students. A third student also has alleged misconduct by Ellis.

Mugmon believes that things have changed, and events seem to bear that out.

In the latest case, Beier was arrested Friday, just three days after the first student came forward.

That was not always the reaction, Mugmon said.

"I think it has changed," she said. "Most people do not know anything about child sexual abuse. We are in denial. People do not want to think people who are nice to us, or clean-cut, or are good teachers, could do this."

Years ago, school administrators' first reaction was to "circle the wagons," she said.

Stephen Berry, manager of in-home services for Maryland's Department of Human Services, said the law is clear.

When a school principal gets an allegation of sexual abuse, it must be reported immediately to either local law enforcement, social services or both.

A preliminary investigation is launched within 24 hours, featuring a visit to evaluate the child's safety. After that, the results depend on what is found by investigators trained in the specialized field.

"We have come a long way when it comes to knowing what to ask and who to ask," Berry said.

Michael E. Hickey, who was Howard school superintendent from 1984 to 2000, said awareness among teachers is much higher now too, which may help limit incidents.

"I think that the teachers, by and large as a whole, are so strongly aware of the impropriety of that and abhorred by the thought that anyone would do it. Individuals who do it either have problems or are stupid," he said.

Jane Schuchardt, a retired teacher and former Howard school board member, also recalled a very different way incidents like this were handled years ago.

"People would not have talked about things like that in public. It would be whispered," she said.

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