Montgomery County investigating teachers' charges of sexual harassment against principal

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010; B05

Montgomery County school administrators are investigating allegations of sexual harassment against the principal at Kemp Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring by a group of teachers.

One of the teachers, Daniel J. Picca, was fired in late May after allegations that he inappropriately touched a boy in his fourth-grade math class in April.

The boy's parents say the principal, Floyd Starnes, pressured their son into writing a false statement about Picca.

Picca, who has taught in Montgomery schools for more than 20 years and has faced allegations of misconduct twice before, said he plans to appeal his termination.

Several colleagues have come to Picca's defense, including some who have made separate misconduct claims about Starnes. As many as 10 men and women have filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. They say the principal has called them "baby" or "sweetie" and that he has touched or pinched at least one of them.

"We are aware that a small number of people have made numerous allegations about the working environment at Kemp Mill Elementary School," said Dana Tofig, spokesman for Montgomery public schools. "We are taking the necessary time to complete an investigation properly in a manner that is fair to all involved and is in the best interest of the students at Kemp Mill. If the evidence shows that any member of the staff has acted improperly, appropriate action will be taken."

Some parents have also rallied around Picca, including Todd and Hedy Ross, who said their son, who had written the statement, blossomed in Picca's math class last year and was not a victim of unwanted touching.

Picca said that on April 12 the boy hit his shoulder while playing after school and that he touched the shoulder to check for injuries. A colleague who walked into the room at the time later reported to Starnes that Picca was rubbing the boy's shoulder and upper arm.

Starnes interviewed the boy, as well as other students in the room. He asked him to write a statement that read: "On Monday 4\12\10 Mr. Picca Math class I got pushed into a desk. Mr. Picca massage my back becuse he made me Loose."

Todd Ross said that when he saw the statement three months later, he asked his son, who struggles academically, how he wrote it. "He said the principal told him how to spell 'massage' and 'loose,' " Todd Ross said. "He would not have used those words."

At the time of the incident, Picca was under scrutiny by Montgomery administrators. He received a letter from Superintendent Jerry Weast in February 2000 reprimanding him for "inappropriate, unprofessional, and highly suspect" behavior.

The letter referenced two allegations of misconduct involving male students within four years. Weast said he found "no evidence to indicate sexual contact" but that he was concerned. Picca was transferred to another school and given a list of "specific directives" to follow, including not spending time alone or in small groups with students during non-curricular activities, not giving them special treats, and not engaging them in any activities related to "body building, muscular development, and the like."

Proven violations of any of the directives would be grounds for more serious disciplinary action or termination, the letter said.

Picca said that the first allegation came from a parent at Rachel Carson Elementary, whom he had had "a personal relationship with" a few years earlier. Resulting investigations by police did not yield criminal charges, but Child Protective Services found some evidence of abuse. With that in his personnel file, he said, "I have been teaching on eggshells for 15 years."

The second allegation came at Luxmanor Elementary in 1999 after a pool party attended by many parents and teachers, where students participated in a mock bodybuilding competition for which Picca helped them prepare.

Picca denied wrongdoing in the two previous incidents.

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