A METRO ARTICLE YESTERDAY INCORRECTLY REFERRED TO JAMES A. MISENHEIMER AS A FORMER MUSIC AND DRAMA TEACHER AT MONTGOMERY COUNTY'S CHURCHILL HIGH SCHOOL. SCHOOL ROLLS LIST HIM AS A TEACHER OF VOCAL MUSIC. (PUBLISHED 06/16/99)

A former drama and music teacher at Winston Churchill High School pleaded guilty yesterday in Montgomery County Circuit Court to having sexual relations with a 15-year-old student in his office at the Potomac school.

James A. Misenheimer, who taught at the Montgomery County high school for more than 10 years, pleaded guilty to a single third-degree sexual offense for engaging in oral sex with the girl, a sophomore who was one of his students. Prosecutors said Misenheimer and the student had a sexual relationship that lasted about a month early this year.

Police arrested Misenheimer, 34, of Olney, in February after he allegedly sent improper sexual messages to another of his students -- a 14-year-old girl -- via the Internet. A few days after the arrest, the 15-year-old girl contacted authorities and disclosed her relationship with the teacher.

Misenheimer, who was placed on administrative leave with pay in February, submitted his resignation last month, school officials said yesterday.

Speaking before Judge Martha G. Kavanaugh, Assistant State's Attorney Alex Foster likened Misenheimer's school office to a "bachelor pad," noting that it had a sofa bed, a refrigerator and provisions for candlelight. Misenheimer, Foster said after the hearing, would sometimes sleep overnight in his office. "It was like a small apartment, and I think it was just inappropriate for a teacher."

Prosecutors said they were satisfied with the plea. "We are convinced that this plea achieves everything we wanted: a felony conviction, the end of his teaching career, registration of his name on the sex offenders registry and the freedom to ask the judge to send him to jail for the maximum possible term," said State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler.

"Teachers are supposed to be role models, not sexual predators. We do not tolerate this behavior," Gansler said.

Foster said prosecutors plan to ask for prison time when Misenheimer is sentenced Aug. 25; the maximum allowed for the offense is 10 years. Misenheimer is free on bond until then. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors will not pursue the misdemeanor charge he faced in connection with the e-mails that were sent to the younger girl.

David C. Driscoll, Misenheimer's attorney, called the prosecution's characterization of Misenheimer "harsh" and "hyperbole." "I don't think the facts of this case bear that out. It's kind of bordering on sensationalism," he said, adding that any characterizations should be made in the context of Misenheimer's years at the school. Driscoll said he will ask the judge for a sentence of probation.

In his more than 10 years at Churchill, Misenheimer became a popular teacher who directed the school's Showstoppers choir and "Blast From the Past" musical revue. Prosecutors said he had a lot of influence, especially among students interested in pursuing careers in entertainment.

"He took advantage of the fact that he was the one in charge of this Broadway show stuff," Foster said.

According to the statement of facts prosecutors presented in court, Misenheimer's relationship with the 15-year-old included sexually graphic messages sent over the Internet. Misenheimer met with the sophomore on at least six occasions in his office, according to the statement of facts. Sometimes, she would return to the school after hours to meet with him. The prosecutor said the two did not have intercourse, but did engage in other forms of sexual activity, including oral sex and masturbation.

When authorities began investigating Misenheimer, Foster said, the teacher had a "rehearsal session" with the girl to act out what they would tell police to deny their relationship.

"Any time a defendant pleads guilty to the lead charge without limiting the time in jail while also sparing a child from having to testify in court, we have achieved a fair result," Foster said. "The victim, her parents and the police are all satisfied with the resolution of the case."