A Differing Definition Of Justice

Former Prince William County teacher David Perino, with his wife, Brenda, in their Jeanette, Pa., home, was fired after being acquitted of sexual abuse.
Former Prince William County teacher David Perino, with his wife, Brenda, in their Jeanette, Pa., home, was fired after being acquitted of sexual abuse. (By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 10, 2005

The Prince William County high school teacher was fighting to hang on to his job and career. David Perino already had been cleared in criminal court of sexually abusing a student, a 20-year-old woman with Down syndrome. Now he had to convince another jury: eight School Board members.

Perino's defense attorney was stuck in traffic, but the board's chairman ordered the closed hearing to begin without her. The superintendent's attorney, seated at a table to Perino's left, launched into the case against him, while a stenographer dutifully transcribed the proceedings. The student who made the allegation was not asked to testify.

The verdict came swiftly: A week later, the School Board fired Perino, 40, and asked the state to revoke his teaching license, not only because of the allegation of sexual abuse but also because of the discovery of pornography on his school computer. For the veteran teacher, it was a jarring lesson: You can be acquitted by the legal system, but school boards operate in another realm of justice -- one that is rarely witnessed by the public and in which the rules are different.

In the criminal justice system, jurors can acquit a person accused of a crime when there is reasonable doubt, whereas school board members in grievance hearings can terminate a teacher on the same allegation based on "substantial evidence." At trial, defense attorneys can subpoena crucial witnesses for cross-examination, but they have no such power in an administrative hearing.

A polygraph administered to Perino that police said showed deception was inadmissible in court, but it was considered by the board. And the criminal trial judge did not admit the pornography evidence, saying it was impossible to determine who downloaded the images.

Among educators, one camp believes that any evidence, not just that admissible in court, should be considered by school boards in an abundance of caution to protect children. But others say that school board members, who serve as judge and jury, appear to have a conflict of interest: Their employee -- the superintendent -- is the one bringing the charges.

"It smacks of unfairness," said Michael Simpson, an assistant general counsel with the National Education Association. "School board members don't come into the hearing with a clean and open mind. Their bias is to support the superintendent. School boards hire superintendents, and they tend to want to support the guy they brought in."

Prince William School Board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp (At Large) said that Virginia's process is "absolutely fair" and that superintendents get scrutinized as much as the employee does during a hearing. "We do hire a superintendent, but we also fire superintendents, and we have to evaluate superintendents," she said.

Critics of Virginia's system point to other states that have teachers' unions and collective bargaining agreements, which typically require independent arbitrators to settle disputes. Virginia does not have teachers' unions. Unlike elected school board members, arbitrators have nothing to lose if they make an unpopular decision, said Lisa Soronen, a staff attorney for the National School Boards Association.

In Maryland, a teacher can appeal a school board's decision to an administrative law judge, who hears evidence from both sides, then makes a recommendation to the State Board of Education, whose members have the ultimate say. In the District, when school system hearing officers terminate a teacher, the teacher can appeal to independent arbitration officers from the American Association of Arbitration, said Nathan A. Saunders, general vice president of the Washington Teachers Union.

Perino's 16 years of instructing students with disabilities came to an abrupt halt Dec. 12, 2003, at C.D. Hylton High School in Woodbridge. About 11 a.m., the student came into his empty classroom to chat. On that point, both sides agree.

The student says she was seeking Perino's advice about her parents' separation when he tried to sodomize her. Perino says that the student was infatuated with him and that when she entered the room, the two talked about photographs on his wall before he told her to return to her regular classroom.


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