Thursday, June 7, 2007

Complaints slipped through cracks in Thomas case

BOE hopes to reinforce county policies on tracking teacher complaints

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Student and parent complaints lodged against former teacher and embattled Prince George’s school board member Nathaniel B. Thomas were not properly documented, a revelation that has sparked talk of potential reform among school board members.

Two complaints were filed against Thomas regarding his conduct with students when he taught U.S. government and U.S. history at Forestville Military Academy during the 2003-04 school year.

Timothy Maloney, an attorney who investigated Thomas’ conduct for the school board, and some Prince George’s school board members said the school system should emphasize the importance of documenting substantiated complaints from parents and students.

School board member Rosalind Johnson (Dist. 1) of Laurel stressed that the Thomas situation was an anomaly, but said the board should explore ways to remind schools what behavior should be recorded.

‘‘It would seem to me that whenever there was a concern of a serious nature, there would be some level of documentation,” Johnson said. ‘‘This came as a surprise to everyone. ... I’m sure it will not happen in the future.”

Johnson said she expects the board will soon examine all school system policies – including teacher complaint guidelines – and adjust some if necessary.

‘‘I am certain we are going to be looking at all policies for those that need to be amended,” she said.

Eric Lyles, Forestville principal at the time Thomas taught there, said two male students complained about ‘‘inappropriate jokes, hand gestures and other remarks” that Thomas made during class. He was quoted in an independent report issued by Maloney last month.

Parents of the students ‘‘complained about Mr. Thomas’s frequent references to homosexuality,” Maloney’s 36-page report said.

The complaints were not documented in Thomas’s file after a meeting between one of the students’ parents, Thomas and Lyles, the report said.

Thomas resigned from Forestville in December 2006, but denied those complaints were brought against him, according to the report.

Lyles said the complaints were not included in Thomas’s teacher file because he resigned soon after they were made.

There were no allegations of physical contact between the Forestville students and Thomas, whose removal from the school board was recommended by his colleagues in May, based on Maloney’s findings.

The state school board will hold a public hearing for Thomas June 25. If the state agrees with the county board, Gov. Martin O’Malley would make the final call.

Separately, Thomas was indicted on charges of a third degree sexual offense in connection with a different student. He awaits trial and could face up to 10 years in prison.

The problem with failing to document Thomas’s conduct at Forestville was a rarity, school system spokesman John White said. Nevertheless, administrators should be sure to include properly submitted complaints in teacher records.

‘‘I would expect these kinds of acts to be documented,” White said. ‘‘[Schools Superintendent John Deasy’s] response is that this certainly should have been documented [by Forestville Military Academy].”

The school system’s procedures for filing complaints say that any school employee charged with allegations of harassment or discrimination should ‘‘obtain basic facts of the incident(s) alleged” and further investigation should be conducted by the superintendent, deputy superintendent or several other officials.

Tracking allegations of disturbing behavior, Maloney said, could help Prince George’s avoid hiring teachers with spotty records.

‘‘The documentation of these complaints would have raised significant issues had Mr. Thomas sought reemployment in the system, or employment in another school system,” Maloney said in the report.

Carol Kilby, president of the Prince George’s County Educator’s Association (PGCEA), said schools should be careful to only lodge complaints after proper measures have been taken, including conducting an investigation.

‘‘Sometimes there are things that are inaccurate [on teacher records]. Sometimes, it’s a principal who might not like you, and sometimes, there are just misunderstandings,” Kilby said. ‘‘And those files can be very detrimental to the teacher if they’re inaccurate.”

Kilby said her organization helps teachers fight charges they see as unwarranted.

‘‘We’re not protecting teachers that are not doing the right thing, but we think teachers do the right thing,” she said.

E-mail Dennis Carter at dcarter@gazette.net.