Montgomery settles with group of teachers who sued Kemp Mill principal

Montgomery County Public Schools

Montgomery County officials have reached an out-of-court settlement with six former employees at Kemp Mill Elementary School who accused their one-time principal of misconduct and retaliation.

The settlement, which came just days before a trial was scheduled to begin Monday, puts an end to a civil lawsuit that, according to court documents, included allegations that the principal escorted unruly children into a closet-size room to calm them down and subjected staff members to unwanted touching, verbal abuse and harassment.

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Both sides signed a confidentiality agreement that bars release of the terms of the settlement, which The Washington Post confirmed late Thursday. A joint statement from attorneys in the case said only: “This case has been settled to the satisfaction of all parties.”

Five teachers and an attendance secretary who used to work at Kemp Mill accused Floyd D. Starnes, who started in 2007, of violating numerous laws and school system policies. They charged that Starnes denied services to special education students and advised a young teacher not to report suspicions of abuse to Child Protective Services. The teacher reported it anyway and alleged that Starnes retaliated after investigators visited the school.

Starnes, who remains in the position, did not return an e-mail seeking comment and was not available at the school. School officials who said they were speaking on his behalf said he would not comment.

The idea of taking an out-of-control child into a closetlike space drew a series of questions at a pretrial hearing May 3 in Montgomery County Circuit Court. Judge Ronald B. Rubin said he did not know whether the allegations were true, but if so, he asked: “Really?”

He inquired: How old was the child? How big was the room? At one point, he referred to the room as a “box.”

Associate County Attorney Heather A. Mulloy, who represented the school system and Starnes in the case, protested. No child was ever placed in a box, she said.

“A small, confined space, with the door closed, in the dark?” Rubin asked. “What’s the difference?”

Mulloy sought to explain the principal’s perspective.

“There was a child out of control,” she said. “This happens in schools sometimes. . . .The policy says that if there is a kid out of control, you have to — for their own safety and the safety of others — take them away from that area. . . . [Starnes] was trying to have an area where he could have the child have his tantrum and then calm him down.”

Both sides in the case met with a mediator this week, but they would not discuss details of the session.

“We are very happy with the results, and we were glad it didn’t go to trial,” said Barbara Reeks, one of the plaintiffs, who worked as a music teacher at Kemp Mill for 28 years. Of the six employees involved in bringing the case, three continue to teach in Montgomery, one is retired and two have resigned.

The lawsuit, filed last year, was unusual. It is regarded by some as the alarming story of a principal gone wrong and by others as a personality clash that went from schoolhouse to courthouse. It raises broader questions about how closely principals are supervised and how well they are trained. Starnes was a newcomer to the job when he started at Kemp Mill — with leadership stints at other schools as a principal intern, for a year, and an assistant principal for two years. His management style and early habit of calling people “babe” and “doll” put off some on his staff.

Most clashes between teachers and principals don’t go to court. Those that do often involve employee dismissals, discrimination claims or First Amendment issues, said Perry A. Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University.

“We’ve got this whole attack on the principal’s practices folded into a garden-variety tort claim,” he said. “In general, we would consider this an intramural matter. . . . That is resolved in other forums, not the courtroom.”

The lawsuit, seeking millions of dollars, claimed that Starnes’s actions amounted to negligence and led to emotional distress and that the school system was negligent in supervising him and retaining him as principal. At the time, in March 2012, the plaintiffs’ attorney, Robert Weltchek, said in a statement that his clients would “much prefer” the removal of Starnes as principal.

Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig has previously said that complaints about Starnes did not hold up. “They were investigated and found to have little or no merit,” Tofig said in March 2012. Tofig declined to comment on the case this week.

In a motion asking that the case be thrown out, county attorneys challenged the legal basis for the suit and took a different view of the suit’s many allegations. They disputed key parts of a young teacher’s account involving reporting suspected abuse, for example, and contended that Starnes did not touch a male teacher inappropriately.

The settlement follows a period of turmoil at Kemp Mill. As many as 10 teachers filed claims of sexual harassment with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2010. The EEOC did not pursue those cases. Weltchek, the attorney, stepped in and filed a broader civil complaint after his daughter, Emily, became a teacher at the school and encountered problems with the principal.

Court filings in the case contend that a survey at Kemp Mill showed that before Starnes took over in 2007, 100 percent of school staff said they would recommend it as a good place to work. Afterward, less than 30 percent described it that way, according to court documents.The suit also contends that the school’s test scores dropped, and by June 2011 more than half of the teachers had left.

Mia Andrews, PTA treasurer, said that the allegations against Starnes and the lawsuit have been unfortunate for the school but that she sees no similar problems now. She said she likes the principal, whom she finds “very friendly, very welcoming.”

“The kids love him,” Andrews said.

Dan Morse contributed to this report.

 
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