Chris Steiner stood outside Poolesville High School, pointed a cold red finger at the school's front door, and said "Poolesville is the last place on earth you'd think something like that could happen. We'll probably never be the same."
For years the western Montgomery County neighborhood school has remained immune to the county's school controversies such as busing, underen-rollment and school closure, much less to the rumors of a sex scandal allegedly involving a teacher and a student.
Rumors and turmoil, however, are exactly what the school has on its hands today in the aftermath of the arrest of a 29 year-old male math teacher on a sexual offense charge involving a 14-year-old female student.
The teacher, John Allison Soule, has been placed on paid administrative leave and is awaiting trial Feb. 22 on a fourth-degree sex offense charge. He says he is innocent and is "confident I'll be cleared of all the charges."
"It was sort of a shattering thing," said Stephen Salitrik, a Poolesville English teacher. "The teachers hadn't gotten to know him too well by the time he left, but it still was a jolt because everyone knew he had a special kind of rapport with students. To the extent that teachers had to tell the kids to pipe down and get back to work it was disruptive."
"It's quieted down significantly since all this began," said assistant principal G. R. Lauer. "We didn't have to make any special directives because discipline has pretty much righted itself."
"It's the rumors I can't stand," said one teacher who was one of many who asked not to be identified. "You try to teach them something like world history or foreign language and you just can't compete. They'd much rather hear the latest bit of sensationalism, no matter how vile."
Several teachers reached by telephone became angry when they were asked about Soule's arrest and its effect on school morale. "Why aren't people ever interested in the day-to-day happenings around here that are good?" asked history teacher Susan Ketron. "Poolesville is an exceptionally quiet and excellent school. It's only when scandal comes that the world turns its head."
"I suppose if this were Chicago or New York or some other big decadent city it wouldn't be that big of a deal," another teacher said. "We're almost considered a rural school. Rumors fly everywhere and fast. All you can do is wait until the dust settles and get back to work."
Soule's arrest seemed particularily upsetting to students, who described him as uncommonly "magnetic" and "amiable" as well as able to inject humor and vitality into the tedium of everyday education.
They said he started volleyball and astronomy clubs in his three months at the school, and was active in afterschool activities ranging from disc jockeying at school dances to strumming his guitar for students in his classroom.
"We've had two different substitutes now and people are skipping the class like crazy," said Eddie Stone, president of the school's 421 junior high school students. Stone said Soule told him Dec. 13 that he was going to be transferred to the computer services division of the school system. Stone then quickly collected 150 signatures on a petition that was sent to School Superintendant Bernardo, asking that Soule not be transferred.
"That was before we realized what the charges were against him," Stone said. I don't know how that might affect our petition."
Darrel Reel, a ninth grader who was enrolled in one of Soule's algebra classes, said. "He'd have a joke a day for every class," Reel said. "He communicated with us so well because he was young." Reel added that the incident has created "lots of weird stories that go from class to class like mad."
"The teachers who have taken over for him don't really know what to do. Either the students don't come to class at all or they spend most of the time whispering and passing notes around."
Charges against Soule were brought by the girl's father, who reportedly had hired a private detective to investigate the teacher.
Soule, who has taught math for several years at county schools, said he has received "lots of calls" from students supporting him. "I really care a lot about the kids," he said.
The fourth-degree sex offense charge against Soule involves sexual relations with a 14- or 15-year-old by a person who is four or more years older. It carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Soule had been teaching at the school for only three months when he was arrested Dec. 12 in the personnel office of Montgomery County schools. He was charged with four counts of having sexual relations with the student, who was enrolled in one of his classes. According to police the alleged incidents occurred at the teacher's Gaithersburg home.
Soule was released on $2,000 bond and the school personnel office began its own investigation.
Many parents are concerned that Poolesville's image as a quiet neighborhood school, within walking distance for most students, will suffer. "We are disconnected from all other hogwash that hits other schools in the county," said Chris Zullo, PTA president of Poolesville Elementary, the primary feeder for the junior-senior high school. "We're like a little oasis in outer space. Kids have the same friends in elementary school that they do in high school.
"Everyone's sort of holding their breath about the math teacher," she said. "I guess in the back of every parent's mind is a sense that something like that could happen with their kids. But this man is innocent for now. No one should jump to conclusions about him or the school. It's a wonderful place."
Harold Rebuck, head of the school PTA, said a PTA committee would investigate the allegations after Bernardo makes his decision on Soule's future. He could be fired, transferred, reinstated or reprimanded.
"I just hope Poolesville doesn't get a bad [reputation] out of all this," he said. "There are all sorts of rumors floating around about the charges, but we know so little facts about the whole thing.All of us first heard about it through the media. It was such a stunning this that I'm not sure I've reacted yet.
"I was at a New Year's party in town with a lot of other Poolesville people and the teacher wasn't even mentioned in any of the conversations I had. I guess publicly no one wants to discuss it because it's so... otherworldly."