2nd appeal in bias case uncertain

Education Notebook

December 16, 2007|By John-John Williams IV

The Howard County Board of Education has until Jan. 3 to decide whether to appeal a recent decision by a Circuit Court judge in a discrimination lawsuit won by a former Centennial High School English teacher.

In the decision, Judge Lenore R. Gelfman upheld the jury's verdict in the case but reduced the amount awarded to Michelle Maupin by $62,000 because of an error that improperly awarded damages for the same acts based on both state and federal statutes.

"It was an impermissible double recovery," said Maupin's lawyer, Mike Coyle. "It was more a legal question. The determination that Ms. Maupin was treated improperly, and that the actions of some of the defendants satisfied the requirement to impose punitive damages remains the same."

In her decision, Gelfman also ordered that the defendants pay Maupin's attorney's fees of $92,783 and additional costs of $8,693.

The school system has not determined whether it will appeal Gelfman's recent ruling, said Mark Blom, the school board's attorney.

In July, a jury awarded Maupin $237,000 in compensatory and punitive damages for harassment she said she experienced. After Gelfman's decision reducing the award, the school board now is responsible for paying $165,000, while former Centennial Principal Lynda Mitic must pay $4,000, English department leader Margaret Polek $5,000 and current Principal Scott Pfeifer $1,000. Gelfman's recent decision reduced Mitic's original amount by $2,000.

In addition, the defendants are responsible for the costs that were added by the judge's decision, but a breakdown was not immediately available.

The three educators are being represented by the school system, Blom said.

"We think that the staff at Centennial did an excellent and admirable job in providing an inviting and friendly, professional environment," the attorney said. "The jury misinterpreted the evidence. We stand by the action of our teachers and Ms. Mitic, the principal, who we think are excellent employees."

Maupin, who is African-American, alleged that problems began shortly after she arrived at Centennial in August 2003 when white parents complained to Mitic about Maupin's teaching style, according to court documents. Maupin accused Mitic of making racial remarks about her instead of supporting her, the documents say.

Maupin also alleged that after she complained about Mitic, she was harassed by colleagues who interrupted her classes, questioned her teaching methods and ignored her at school events.

Maupin, who now teaches at Wilde Lake High School, feels vindicated, said Coyle.

Lessons on life

Students at St. John's Parish Day School in Ellicott City are getting life lessons while building on traditional social studies lessons as the school participates in a partnership with a school in Kenya.

Isabella Dutra, 8, is glimpsing Kenya's culture by corresponding with a pen pal.

She has learned that her pen pal plays handball and loves the color blue. "I've never played handball or wall ball, but I like blue, too," she said.

"I think the best part is getting to know what they do and knowing how hard it is for them," she said. "I know how lucky we are and that I have everything that I need."

Ben Choi, 8, said he plans to keep in contact with his new pen pal.

"It's exciting because this is the first time I've had a pen pal," he said. "It makes you think that [you're] friends with someone far away."

The pen pal exchange means even more to third-graders at the school because they recently completed a unit on African history in their social studies class.

Tami Green, a third-grade teacher, is excited to be able to add another layer of learning.

"They are learning so much about [their pen pals'] culture through the letters," Green said. "We are able to share the same thing with them. ... They actually get to really build a relationship with that child. It can grow and continue outside of St. John's. It is so beneficial for them. On the other hand, it helps them improve their writing skills. That is something that all of us teachers want to see in our students."

St. John's students also are learning valuable lessons in giving.

The school is raising $17,000 for the Mbaikini School in Kenya.

The money will be used to purchase a water tank for the school, uniforms for the students, materials for an overall school renovation and a solar panel that will allow the school to have electricity for a computer room.

The school and the church have raised all but $4,500. The students plan to hold a penny drive and a T-shirt sale to earn the remaining money.

"It's a fabulous project," said Sharon Runge, the school's director of development. "It's not just about collecting money. It's about forming relationships and learning."

Runge went to Wamunyu, Kenya, in September for a weeklong visit with staff members at the Mbaikini School.

"Despite the extreme poverty, we were surprised how absolutely joyful they are," Runge said. "They really value the letters they get from us. The teachers love learning about American culture."

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