D.C. school officials said yesterday they are reviewing the case of a District elementary school principal who was hired last summer despite a federal jury's finding that he sexually harassed a subordinate at a school he led in Memphis.
The jury that heard the lawsuit against Jerry Marlin and the Memphis City Schools ordered the school system in December 1999 to award $182,500 to the plaintiff, court records show. District school administrators acknowledged yesterday that they did not know about the case -- which was covered extensively by the Memphis media -- when they hired Marlin as principal of Bunker Hill Elementary in Northeast Washington.
News about the lawsuit and trial surfaced at Bunker Hill in the fall, when someone stuffed teachers' mailboxes with news articles about the allegations.
The case has split the school community. Many teachers and parents have raised concerns about the jury award and Marlin's decision to withhold information about it during his job interviews here last summer. Others support Marlin, saying that they don't care what happened in the past and that he is a strong administrator who is falling victim to a smear campaign by teachers upset about his attempts to introduce reform.
The debate has prompted the school's PTA to schedule a meeting tonight to address the concerns.
School system officials, meanwhile, are examining whether there were lapses in their background checks.
"We're reviewing the hiring process of this individual," Tony Demasi, the school system's acting executive director of human resources, said yesterday. Demasi, who was not in that post when Marlin was hired, noted that the jury award was part of a civil case and therefore would not "appear on a criminal background investigation."
School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said the jury finding "would have been a red flag to me -- the board has a policy prohibiting sexual harassment." The board does not help decide who is hired.
She also said that it "could be an issue" if Marlin was asked during his interview whether something had occurred that school officials should know about and he said no.
Marlin was principal of Carver High School in Memphis when he was sued by a staff member at the school. According to stories in Memphis area newspapers, the plaintiff testified that when she rejected Marlin's advances, he touched her thigh and asked her for sex. She also testified that he licked her calf, the news accounts said.
Marlin, who denied the allegations, was reassigned to another job in the Memphis school system after the jury award.
After working in Memphis, Marlin became principal at an intermediate school in Granville County, N.C., but he was let go by the superintendent in 2002 for demonstrating poor leadership, according to newspaper accounts there. Marlin received low reviews from teachers and failed to attend regular meetings with the superintendent, the news reports said.
In an interview yesterday, Marlin said he did not volunteer information about the Memphis lawsuit during his interviews with the D.C. school system because he had "decided to move on with my life."
"I've broken no law," he said. "It was my prerogative to disclose or not." Marlin said that when news about the case surfaced at Bunker Hill, he told the school's staff and PTA that the charges were false, and he invited anyone to address questions and concerns to him.
Toni Hughes, president of Bunker Hill's PTA and a member of its local school restructuring team -- which interviewed Marlin before he was hired -- said she is upset that he initially withheld the information.
"The school staff here is 99 percent female," Hughes said. "Had we had that information about his background, I don't think we would have hired him."
She said she also faulted the school system's human resources department for not conducting a more thorough background check.
Hughes added that she is dissatisfied with Marlin's performance, saying he has berated staff members. "Janitors complain," she said. "Aides call me in tears complaining about how he's treated them.."
But Sheila Poole, another PTA member, said she supports Marlin. She and others credit him with introducing mentoring and Saturday-academy programs. She said the controversy over Marlin's past is being stirred by staff members trying to sabotage his efforts to discipline teachers who show up late or not at all.
"If he harms someone here, let's deal with that," Poole said.