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A teacher’s dismissal

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THE MARYLAND State Board of Education has upheld the firing of a Montgomery County teacher who engaged in a pattern of suspect behavior with students. The decision is far from vindication of the county’s handling of the case. Rather it’s a stinging indictment of a school bureaucracy that for almost two decades believed it had a problem but reacted with a seemingly endless flow of ineffective warnings, letters, reprimands and — most appalling — reassignments of the teacher to other schools and other students. Montgomery officials boast about their skill at weeding out troubled and ineffective teachers. This disturbing case should temper the boasts and cause some soul searching.

Daniel J. Picca, most recently a teacher at Kemp Mill Elementary School, also taught at Candlewood, Rachel Carson and Luxmanor elementaries. He was dismissed in 2011 for insubordination and misconduct in office. The proximate cause for his dismissal stemmed from an April 12, 2010, incident in which another teacher at the Silver Spring school reported what she viewed as alarming contact with a male student. Mr. Picca, as was detailed by a hearing examiner who heard the case in 2010 and affirmed by an administrative law judge in July of this year, had been admonished over a 17-year period about his contact with students, mainly young boys. Reported contacts included inappropriate touching, having boys sit on his lap, wrestling and inviting boys to an after-school “Strong Boys Club” in which students said they were encouraged to take off their shirts. One 1995 incident resulted in a finding, upheld in subsequent appeals, by county child protective services that named Mr. Picca responsible for “indicated child abuse.” School officials say that the system’s central personnel office did not become aware of the child abuse findings until June 2010 when information was requested from child protective services as part of its then- ongoing investigation of Mr. Picca.

Mr. Picca, in a telephone conversation with us, labeled as false any allegation that he did anything improper. He noted that — despite investigation by police and the state’s attorney in 1995 — he has never been charged with a crime. He characterized the proceedings against him as a setup, partly in retaliation for his advocacy as a union activist. He noted that the parents of the boy involved in the April 2010 incident said that their son was pressured into making a false statement.

But three principals and two superintendents over many years raised red flags. “The evidence is overwhelming,” Administrative Law Judge David Hofstetter concluded in his July ruling upheld last week by the state board, that Mr. Picca “engaged in a pattern of conduct over many years which was reckless, brazen, unjustified and, most importantly, of grave potential harm to his students.”

How could school officials for so long do no more than put another strongly worded letter into his personnel file and move him to another school? Read the letter then-Superintendent Jerry D. Weast gave to Mr. Picca in February 2000 and consider whether you would entrust your child to such a teacher. The letter instructed Mr. Picca not to engage in any “bodybuilding”-type of activities with students or have contact with them outside the classroom. Shouldn’t the expectation be, as the state board wrote, that “when confronted with such obvious inappropriate behaviors on the part of a teacher toward his students . . . that the teacher will be removed from contact with students with alacrity?”

Mr. Picca was judged to be an effective teacher. He received high ratings on performance standards, but disciplinary proceedings are kept separate from professional evaluations. It’s not clear whether his principals even were aware of all the information that had accumulated in his central office file; as the state board noted, it is as if each reprimand stood alone without reference to past directives. School officials told us that procedures have been tightened, notably better communication between child protective services and the school system. We hope that they are following the advice of the Maryland school board directed to all the state’s systems to scour their personnel files and review policies to ensure “there are no cases, like this one, lurking in their schools.”

This case did feature a few bright spots. The Kemp Mill teacher who walked in on Mr. Picca and a student she saw to be uncomfortable immediately reported what she saw to the principal, who requested investigation by the central office. Mr. Weast rightly rejected a suggestion from Mr. Picca’s counsel for a voluntary resignation or early retirement and insisted on termination, a decision the Montgomery County Board of Education backed in the face of community pressure for a teacher who enjoyed considerable popularity. Montgomery officials said they have requested that the state revoke Mr. Picca’s teaching license.

Mr. Picca is contesting that move and said he may appeal his termination in Circuit Court.

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