Unemployment hearing postponed for suspended MCPS teacher
High-profile case brought out crowd of supporters
A hearing scheduled this week to try to revoke the unemployment benefits of suspended public school teacher Dan Picca was postponed after the hearing examiner saw the crowd of teachers, students and parents who came out as potential witnesses.
"It was clear that this case would take hours, not just 45 minutes," said Judy Smylie, director and chief hearing examiner for the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's Division of Lower Appeals.
Dan Picca, a fourth-grade math teacher at Kemp Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, was suspended in April following allegations he inappropriately touched one of his students. The student and his parents have come forward to say they do not believe there was any wrongdoing, and that the student was coerced into writing a statement by the school's principal, Floyd Starnes. Picca has said the only reason he was recommended for termination was because Starnes had been sexually harassing him, as well as several other teachers at the school.
In a statement released last week, the school system said an investigation is under way into allegations about the work environment at the school.
"We are taking the necessary time to complete an investigation properly in a manner that is fair to all involved and is in the best interest of the students at Kemp Mill," said the statement, which was released by MCPS spokesman Dana Tofig. "As with all such matters, we will base any actions we take on the facts and conclusive evidence we collect. We do not take action based on rumors and whisper campaigns."
Picca applied for unemployment benefits May 23, Smylie said. He was determined to be eligible for unemployment, but the county school system has appealed that decision, she said.
Tofig said he would wait until the hearing to discuss the reason the school system is contesting Picca's unemployment benefits.
"The bottom line is: Unemployment benefits are paid for by the employer," he said.
Smylie said the hearing examiner was already running behind from her previous case Monday when she walked in to the room of Picca's hearing. News cameras were being set up and several people were waiting outside, she said. The examiner realized this was not a "garden-variety" unemployment hearing with one or two witnesses, Smylie said, and postponed the hearing until they could carve out a longer block of time.
But Hedy and Todd Ross, the parents of the child Picca allegedly touched, said the people outside were supporters, not witnesses.
"There wasn't a plethora of witnesses," said Todd Ross. "I think the hearing examiner was just caught off guard by cameras showing up. I don't think they expected a circus. I think they expected it to be just your regular hearing."
"We could have invited them into the hearing room, which is what we're going to do next time," Hedy Ross said. "We were trying to be considerate, but if they're going to use these tactics because they don't want the truth getting out, then let the 30 people come inside, as well as the camera."
Smylie said the hearing will be rescheduled to last at least two hours, and will be set for the end of the day. She expects it to take place late August or early September.
"When we know a case is going to take longer, we assign additional time," she said. "When that case is reset, it will be reset as a longer meeting. It's better to have all the testimony heard at one time."
Picca said the delay has his supporters infuriated.
"These kids are absolutely fired up," he said. "Their parents are fired up. And they want to know what's next."
Picca and the Rosses said they are planning a protest at Kemp Mill's open house the morning of Aug. 27.
"It's a disaster at that place," Hedy Ross said. "And the county just sits there and lets it go on. It's very scary."