Parents worry after Montgomery teacher’s arrest on child pornography charge

The initial news was bad enough. A music teacher at their children’s elementary school in Montgomery County was in jail, accused of keeping child pornography on his laptop computer.

Then details began to emerge. There were other images, described by police as inappropriate, with at least some taken inside the school. It prompted the most obvious question, one that has worried parents for nearly two months.

(Baltimore County Police) - Lawrence Joynes

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“We don’t know if this man has pictures of our children,” Angelica Nava said in Spanish, her voice rising Tuesday night during the second of two emotionally charged meetings at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School, along the eastern edge of Silver Spring.

The allegations against Lawrence Joynes, 54, have detectives looking into his 27-year career as a teacher in Montgomery County schools. Investigators are sorting through a series of images — Joynes told police he made videos of students as he inserted his finger into their mouths — and weighing what might legally constitute child pornography, according to authorities.

One particular concern is Joynes’s e-mail. Police said that Joynes last June sent similar videos to a child pornography producer in South Carolina. In the background of the videos, which involve a young girl, are musical instruments and what looks like a classroom, according to charging documents.

Since Joynes’s Feb. 27 arrest, parents have questioned whether school administrators were watching him closely enough. Two parents said in interviews that they had told school officials about incidents they considered inappropriate. One reported that Joynes asked a child to call him “Daddy.” Another said the teacher made comments in front of second-graders about a relative being a drug addict. A third parent said at a school meeting that he had complained about Joynes, but did not describe his concern. School officials said publicly that significant action had been taken in that instance.

Two teachers said in interviews that they reported Joynes for actions they found worrisome, including locking classroom doors while he was inside with children.

There is no indication that what parents and teachers reported about Joynes amounted to criminal offenses. The case highlights the line that school officials must walk, bordered on one side by actions that are inappropriate — or worse — and on the other by actions that might be odd but benign.

It’s a line that in this case, some parents say, was marked with red flags.

“It’s hard to imagine how he remained in place teaching such young children for so long, given the string of complaints,” said Luis Clemens, the parent of a former student who said he is frustrated “that the alarm bells didn’t start ringing.”

Joynes is being held in Baltimore County on $1 million bond. A letter mailed to him at the jail did not yield a response and his lawyer, James Dills, declined to comment.

School officials have said they can’t comment in detail on Joynes’s case, but Bronda Mills, a community superintendent for Montgomery schools, told parents and teachers that the school system would investigate the handling of the case and review its procedures across the system.

At a meeting with parents, she acknowledged receiving some complaints about Joynes in recent years, but indicated they were nothing like what he is accused of doing. “Never have I received information that this teacher was taking inappropriate pictures of children . . . or anything that would make me believe I needed to report something to the police.”

Multiple complaints

Joynes started teaching in Montgomery classrooms in 1985, spending the past decade at New Hampshire Estates, a school of 510 students in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Parents say he was beloved by many students — often viewed as funny and engaging, with a classroom of toys and instruments.

But some teachers and parents say issues arose that left them uncomfortable.

Mary Silverman, a teacher at New Hampshire Estates until last June, said she had reported Joynes for hugging a young girl between his legs as he sat on a stool and for keeping his classroom doors locked when he had three first-grade girls inside for a “lunch bunch.” Both complaints, she said, were made verbally several years ago.

Teacher Ellen Holder, who worked with Joynes for nearly 10 years before moving to another school, said she reported him to the principal last year after a first-grader said the teacher had tickled her. Holder said she also twice went to school officials after finding that Joynes had locked his classroom door with students inside.

Both teachers were among about 75 parents and educators who attended the school meeting last week. Mills told them complaints about Joynes were handled “the way they should be handled.”

Marinda Thomas Evans, who became the New Hampshire Estates principal three years ago, was at the meeting, but Mills did most of the talking. School officials said later that Evans was not available for comment.

“I assure you that when I have the evidence and the pattern, I move it to the next level,” Mills said at the meeting.

But many who spoke up said the central issue was whether the school system had documented and tracked all complaints, so that it could recognize potentially troubling patterns.

“I’ve heard four times, ‘If we had proof, we would’ve done something,’ ”one father said. “But it’s all the little bits. . . . Who sits down and goes through a personnel file?” He added: “These are my kids — my kids.”

Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig said that a school investigation would follow the criminal investigation. Joynes has taught at 11 Montgomery public schools, including Eastern Middle, Francis Scott Key Middle and Cannon Road Elementary. In some instances he split his time between schools.

“We have — and will continue — to take swift action if we become aware of inappropriate conduct by a member of our staff,” Tofig said. “We expect our staff to act in the best interest of students at all times, and the vast majority do. ”

‘Extremely disturbing’

Since Joynes’s arrest, police said they have been sifting through images and digital files seized from his computer. Two police departments are at work on the case — Baltimore County, where Joynes lived, and Montgomery, where he worked.

No one has put a number on just how many pictures or videos have been collected, but Montgomery police recently received a cache of files from Joynes’s computer and expect that it could take weeks to examine them, police said.

According to charging documents, Joynes told police he invited girls to have lunch in his classroom. He told police he played games with his students, including times when he would put a peppermint stick into a child’s mouth.

Joynes said he stuck his finger into the mouths of “approximately seven” students at New Hampshire Estates, the documents said, and that he frequently videotaped his students.

The teacher also told police that he had fantasized about one girl, gave her a “horsey” ride on his lap and tattooed her name on his right shoulder, according to the court papers. She was 7 or 8 at the time.

“When you put it all together it’s extremely disturbing,” said Lisa Dever, a Baltimore County prosecutor. “He had access to kids. Every year, a new batch of kids.”

Montgomery police have assigned five detectives to look back across Joynes’s career and are seeking to talk to as many parents, students and former students as possible, said Lt. Bob Carter, the acting commander of the Family Crimes Division.

“We are working with a sense of urgency,” Carter said.

So far, Carter said, detectives have interviewed more than a dozen of Joynes’s students or former students.They include the girl whose name Joynes said he tattooed on his shoulder, and a student Joynes said he videotaped with his finger in her mouth, according to police and court papers.

The experience of those former students is sad, Carter said.

“In retrospect,” he said, “they now realize they’d been put in a horrible position by someone they trusted. This is painful for them.”

The case against Joynes started with a federal investigation that led to a South Carolina man, Gerald Roberts, who federal agents said produced and distributed child pornography. Roberts pleaded guilty to the manufacture and transportation of child pornography, according to federal officials.

That investigation led to an e-mail address traced to Joynes and four video clips that showed children in what appeared to be a music room. The videos included images of a man putting a peppermint stick into a young girl’s mouth. The e-mail sender told Roberts: “Try some pics like these.”

On Feb. 27, detectives arrived with a search warrant at Joynes’s home in the Dundalk community of Baltimore County. According to court papers, they knocked several times and identified themselves. Eventually they forced their way inside and found Joynes “attempting to leave through the back door.”