A popular Fairfax County teacher who committed suicide over the holiday weekend believed that school officials were about to find him guilty of sexual harassment because of a remark he made to a girl during a math class, friends and family members said yesterday.
Michael Bullock, 49, was found dead Monday in his Springfield apartment from what a source said was a drug overdose. He was described yesterday by some students at Edison High School as a gregarious, devoted teacher whose lessons were wrapped in sarcastic humor that inspired some of them and offended others.
The girl's complaint that Bullock made an inappropriate remark about her chest led to an investigation of Bullock, and school officials said yesterday that two or three other students complained after the math class incident that Bullock had made inappropriate comments about their bodies.
Fairfax School Superintendent Robert R. Spillane said last night he has initiated an investigation into whether Bullock was told he would be dismissed or whether he was told the investigation was continuing.
Family members said yesterday that Bullock, who weighed more than 280 pounds and suffered from chronic bronchitis and other health problems, had been depressed since being placed on administrative leave two weeks ago while school officials investigated the girl's allegation.
In two notes found near his body, family members said, Bullock -- who had taught in Fairfax schools for 21 years -- said he was worried that he would be found guilty of harassment and be transferred to a job shuffling papers.
"They were the words of one very frustrated teacher," said Bullock's brother, Harold Bullock, of Purcellville, who said one of the notes was addressed to him and the other was addressed to their mother in Independence, Kan. "Mike's whole life was teaching. I guess when that was taken away from him, that was what did it."
After meeting last week with three school system administrators investigating the unidentified girl's allegation, "Mike was crushed and distraught by what they told him," said Rick Nelson, a teachers union president who said he attended the meeting with Bullock and also left with the impression that Bullock would be found guilty. "He had given all he had for 20 years to kids of Fairfax County."
During the meeting, Nelson said, Bullock was told that "he was guilty of sexual harassment because he had created what they called a 'hostile environment' in the classroom."
Superintendent Spillane said the investigation he initiated will include sworn testimony to be taken from the three school officials who were in the meeting with Bullock and Nelson.
Hitherto, Spillane said, "no one at any official meeting" has said that Bullock was to have been dismissed. The three officials who attended the meeting with Bullock and Nelson said yesterday that Bullock was told the investigation was continuing, Spillane said.
The additional complaints about Bullock, Spillane said, were under investigation along with the math class incident. They concerned three remarks, made to two or three students. Those remarks allegedly concerned students' bodies, and the students considered them verbal harassment, Spillane said.
School officials said that if he had been found guilty of harassment, Bullock could have been transferred to a nonteaching job or had a letter of reprimand placed in his personnel file.
Nelson said the complaint against Bullock stemmed from an incident several weeks ago in which Bullock, who had a stomach disorder, was repeatedly poked in the chest by the girl "in a friendly but painful manner." When Bullock asked the girl to stop, she made a remark about the large size of his chest. Bullock responded with a comment about the small size of her chest, Nelson said.
"There was nothing physical on his part," said Nelson, who is president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers and who said he agreed to comment on the case because school officials had spoken about the allegations publicly.
"It was an exasperated comment . . . in front of the class. He admitted that he said it," Nelson said. "He gave an irritated reply that she construed as critical of her looks."
Yesterday at Edison High, where Bullock had taught since 1986, students who praised Bullock's devotion to the school painted his portable metal and plywood classroom with poems and messages such as, "You Weren't Just One of My Teachers, You Were a Good Friend." A few of his students had held a memorial service late the previous night around the trailer they called "Bullock's Bungalow."
Some students who knew him well said they felt guilty that they had not called him during his suspension to offer a word of encouragement. And a few said they felt anger at the system that had removed him from the school he loved, and even at him for taking himself away from the many lives he had touched.
"I felt real guilty" about Bullock's suicide, said senior Katy Cilinski, 17. "He gave 110 percent. At times we didn't give him what he deserved."
"My initial feeling was that we let him down," said senior Missy Cooper, 18. "He cared too much" about the success of his students, she added. "That's what got him."
By all accounts, Bullock was an unconventional teacher. Students said Bullock called himself "The Great Poobah" and called his students "The Dingalings." His trailer had a microwave oven and a small refrigerator, and he often passed out soft drinks during class.
"In his heart, he wanted to make a difference with the kids," Edison Principal Luther Fennell said.
Decorating the trailer "was a way to vent our emotions," said senior Sarah Chiles, 17. She pointed to her farewell message painted on the trailer, which was signed "Dimples" in foot-high letters, the nickname Bullock had given Chiles because of her smile.
"He was more like a friend than a teacher," said senior Mike Bekele. "He went way outside the boundaries of the normal teacher. He had an overwhelming personality."
Edison administrators encouraged the outpouring of messages, and they adorned a main hall of the school with huge sheets of blank paper yesterday morning. Students quickly filled up the paper with messages and prayers for Bullock and his family.
An organization of math teachers is setting up a scholarship in Bullock's name, Fennell said. A memorial service is scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday at Church of the Good Shepherd in Burke.
Robert F. Clark, area director of secondary programs and a former principal at Edison, said Bullock "was the kind of teacher who would give his home phone number to students and say, 'Call me any time you don't understand your schoolwork.' He would stay after school or come in on Saturdays."
Yesterday, a crisis team of counselors was working with students and faculty members upset about Bullock's death.
"The biggest disappointment is that he won't be here for graduation," said Bekele, who wrote on Bullock's trailer, "I wish to God this would have never ended this way. We miss you so very much."
Said Cooper, "I can still hear him talking. It really hasn't hit yet."
Staff writers Peter Baker and Steve Bates contributed to this report.
-- senior Mike Bekele