Former Prince George's teacher Laurie R. Laurienzo filed a $10 million suit against the county school board last week, seeking compensaton and punitive damages for alleged unfair dismissal.
The suit, filed in county circuit court, names as defendants the county board members, Superintendent Edward J. Feeney, Assistant Superintendent Edward M. Felegy, Bowie High School principal John M. Hagan, Largo High School principal C. Lance Statler and county physical education specialist Charles Brown.
Laurienzo, 50, a physical education teacher in county schools since 1958, was suspended without pay last May and then was fired from his $27,000-a-year job at Largo Senior High School last October for misconduct and incompetence. He had been transferred to Bowie from Largo the previous year.
Superintendent Feeney informed Laurienzo last May that he was recommending to the school board Laurienzo's dismissal for "incompetency" and "misconduct in office" while he taught at Bowie Senior High School and Largo Senior High School. Feeney said Laurienzo's teaching performance was unsatisfactory and that he discussed with his students during class other lawsuits he filed against two school administrators and later dropped. Feeney questioned Laurienzo's "motivation" in filing the lawsuits, and deemed "such action to be in evidence of your misconduct in office." Laurienzo filed the superintendent's letter in court with his complaint.
Laurienzo denies incompetence and misconduct. He says he did discuss the lawsuits with his students, but not during class time. He filed the suits because he felt he was ill-treated by school administrators, he said, and dismissed them to give the Prince George's County Educators' Association an opportunity to try to settle the dispute through arbitration.
The school board accepted Feeney's recommendation and fired Laurienzo in October.
School board attorney Paul M. Nussbaum said Tuesday that while he has not yet read Laurienzo's complaint, he is certain the school board will contest it, and that he represents the defendants. He said he can speak on behalf of the defendants and based on what he knows of the suit, "I think the allegations are absurd."
Nussbaum told the board at a meeting last October that Laurienzo was rated unsatisfactory in 12 of 22 categories in an April 1 evaluation of his teaching performance at Largo, and received five letters of reprimand the following month. Laurienzo had been rated unsatisfactory in six categories in his last evaluation at Bowie the year before, according to Nussbaum.
Susan W. Russell, an attorney for the Prince George's Educators' Association who represented Laurienzo before the board, argued that the unsatisfactory evaluations were not justified and that Laurienzo had not discussed his lawsuits with students during class time.
She told the board that Laurienzo had taught for 19 years at Benjamin Stoddert Junior High with no unfavorable evaluation. But when he arrived at Bowie in 1978, she said, he faced the resentment of other teachers, who were upset that two of their colleagues had been laid off while newcomer Laurienzo, who had more countywide experience, was given a position.
"Petty conflicts developed" and Laurienzo was "ostracized by his colleagues," Russell said.
After Laurienzo wrote an article critical of the school administration and several administrators that was published in the Bowie Blade, the local weekly newspaper, he received several memoranda critical of his job performance, Russell said.
She said Laurienzo refuted the criticisms in letters to the principal. At the end of the 1979-80 school year, Laurienzo was transferred to Largo.
At Largo, Laurienzo was told to teach a math course for which Russell said he had "no training, no courses, no experience, no aptitude," as well a gymnastics and dance classes.
Laurienzo said that his negative evaluations at Largo were based on the math, dance and gymnastics classes, rather than on the physical education classes he was trained to teach.
One written report, made by Charles Brown, a county physical education specialist and one of Laurienzo's supervisors, in April 1981, was that Laurienzo refused to work on gymnastic equipment for safety reasons and spent 10 minutes "downgrading" his principal. It noted that there was "no teaching taking place at all." Feeney cited this report in his letter to Laurienzo, and a copy of it is attached to Laurienzo's complaint. Laurienzo denies the charges made in Brown's report.
Laurienzo's position was initially supported by state officials when he applied for unemployment benefits. Last October, an unemployment claims officer in Montgomery County, where Laurienzo lives, determined that the teacher was not disqualified from receiving unemployment compensation benefits because of misconduct.
The Prince George's school system appealed, and the decision was overturned in December by appeals referee Gerald E. Askin of the Maryland Department of Human Resources. Askin found that Laurienzo had engaged in "gross misconduct" for displaying a cartoon in his office at Bowie that depicted three principals stabbing him in the back, and for publicly criticizing his supervisors. Laurienzo's benefits were denied. Laurienzo has filed an appeal with the Department of Human Resources.
But Askin concluded that the "administration of the Prince George's County school system ganged up on the claimant when they concluded he was a thorn in their side," and said he did not feel that Laurienzo "is in any way incompetent."
Many of Laurienzo's defenders privately say that the teacher's unremitting public criticism of the school system has made his position more difficult. But Laurienzo's lawyer, Maurice J. Beggiani, said this week that Laurienzo had a valid case "no matter what his personality is."
Last week Laurienzo, who is now working as a swimming pool manager in Crystal City, said he is fighting less for himself than for "truth, justice and the American way." CAPTION: Picture, Laurie Laurienzo is seeking a $1 million in his suit against P.G. schools. By Vanessa Barnes Hillian -- The Washington Post