Parents protest outside Kemp Mill Elementary
Climate at school in question; protesters call for principal's dismissal
As Silver Spring resident Mira Mundey walked with her two elementary-school age sons into Kemp Mill Elementary's open house Friday, she was greeted by both welcome balloons and a crowd of protesters advocating for the dismissal of Principal Floyd Starnes.
The protest, arranged by grassroots group SaveKMES, was held to encourage the school system to remove Starnes, who group members say sexually harassed teachers and coerced students into writing accusatory statements against former fourth-grade math teacher Dan Picca.
Mundey recently moved to the area from Olney and said she and her children are confused and nervous over the controversy at the school. She said she's read about the allegations coming from both sides and hopes it won't get in the way of her sons' education.
"It looks like a good school," she said. "Hopefully the boys can have a good learning experience despite all the stuff that's going on."
But Mundey said she, like many others, wants Starnes out, at least until all investigations into possible wrongdoing are complete. At least 10 members of the school's staff filed complaints against Starnes with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging the principal used pet names when speaking with teachers, touched male teachers inappropriately and punished teachers who questioned his leadership style. Parents of at least two children have also claimed that Starnes coached their child into writing false statements that Picca inappropriately touched them.
Picca himself is under investigation following these statements. He has been recommended for termination, but said he is being targeted because he threatened to come forward about harassment by Starnes.
"Get rid of all of them," Mundey said of Picca and Starnes. "It's a bunch of mess."
If the school system doesn't, Mundey said, she may send her second- and third-grade sons to private school.
School system spokesman Dana Tofig declined to comment on the specific situation at Kemp Mill.
"Principals have very difficult jobs and part of their job is to deal with staffing issues," he said. "They need the support of the administration and the school community. ... Sometimes principals have to make unpopular decisions and people can't think they can scream loudly and that will get the person removed."
The protest consisted of roughly a half-dozen adults and a dozen children sporting signs with messages like: "Hey, honey, will you show Starnes the door?" and "KMES has a Weast infection."
Protesters chanted messages in support of Picca and against Starnes for two hours, from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m.
Protester Rae Paley, whose children went through Kemp Mill from the mid-1970s to early '80s, said she has no connection to either staff member, but thinks it is suspect that Starnes didn't call the parents or other school administrators when he had a student write a letter against Picca.
Jackelyn Figueroa, the mother of an incoming fifth-grade boy, said her son was also manipulated by Starnes into writing a statement against Picca. She and her son said the letter was meant to say "Mr. Picca gives us a reward if we clean for him," but instead was told to write, "Mr. Picca gives us a reward if we lean on him."
"He's a fantabulous teacher," she said of Picca. "We strongly believe he's innocent, and we want him back. ... Now my child doesn't want to go back to school for fear of being alone with Mr. Starnes."
Both Figueroa and the son of Todd and Hedy Ross the child whose letter led to the investigation of Picca said they were denied permission to transfer to another elementary school. Hedy Ross said she will be going to class with her son to keep an eye on the situation.
A common message by both protesters and other parents was a call for a more open school system that explains the investigation process. Maria Castro, the mother of a second-grade girl in the school, speaks primarily Spanish and said she didn't fully understand the issue. Castro said there wasn't enough information about the controversy in an Aug. 16 letter sent by Starnes to parents.
"We didn't recognize there was an issue," she said in Spanish. "We hope there will be a solution that works for the kids."