The question of when a parent's complaints go too far and unfairly damage a teacher's reputation went before a Montgomery County jury yesterday as it began hearing a high school coach's $1 million lawsuit against a woman who complained about him.
An attorney for Paul Hassler, a math teacher at Rockville's Magruder High School, argued that Suzanne Sutton's complaints against Hassler, her daughter's varsity softball coach, in 1997 were wrong, malicious and designed to "ruin" his career.
"We don't question the right of a parent to complain," Hassler's attorney, Charles S. Rand, told the jury. "What we question is whether a parent is accountable to telling something resembling the truth."
But Sutton, whose daughter graduated from Magruder last year, argued that she merely asked school officials to investigate her daughter's and other students' long-running complaints that Hassler humiliated students by berating them in front of others. She said she also had heard that Hassler asked girls to lie about their participation in an illegal preseason softball clinic and rewarded his athletes with good grades in his classes.
"She wanted these things investigated," said Sutton's attorney, Joseph Suntum. "They were serious. . . . She was not on a vendetta."
When filed last summer, Hassler's lawsuit was believed to be the first of its kind in Montgomery County. Afterward, a track coach at Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School sued several parents who accused him of discriminating against, and possibly sexually harassing, their daughters on the school's cross-country team.
Circuit Court Judge Durke G. Thompson, who is presiding over the civil trial of Hassler's suit, dismissed the track coach's defamation case in May, stating that such lawsuits could discourage children from reporting possible improprieties.
Another Montgomery judge allowed Hassler's suit to go forward, however, saying parents do not have "unbridled license" under Maryland law to complain about their children's teachers if the complaints are found to be untrue and malicious.
Much of the trial, which is scheduled to last several days, is expected to focus on how Montgomery public schools handle parents' complaints. Suntum, noting that Hassler had been rebuked for yelling at students in 1989, told jurors the case would show that teachers are not adequately disciplined because of the school system's "huge bureaucracy" and a "strong teachers' union."
Part of Hassler's contention that Sutton tried to ruin his career stems from the fact that she filed her four-page written complaint with Magruder High's principal, then sent copies of her letter to five people above him in the chain of command, including Superintendent Paul L. Vance and the school board.
Suntum told jurors yesterday that Magruder Principal John Nori told Sutton she had to put her complaint in writing, and she sent it to other school administrators because she believed it wouldn't be investigated thoroughly. Suntum called the eventual investigation a "sham" and questioned Nori on the stand about why he didn't investigate Sutton's complaint for two weeks until his supervisor asked him to.
Nori said he interviewed the members of the girls' varsity softball team and several parents but did not find enough information to substantiate Sutton's complaints.
CAPTION: Paul Hassler sued an irate parent.