Sep 28, 201202:26 PMEducation Matters
State Board Upholds Firing of MCPS Teacher
For 17 years, elementary school teacher Daniel Picca was warned and reprimanded by Montgomery County Public Schools over his “inappropriate” conduct with male students.
Time and again, Picca was told to stop touching boys, massaging their shoulders and feeling their biceps; to stop asking them to take off their shirts and flex their muscles and to sit on his lap; to stop meeting privately with students.
Transferred from school to school, he apparently continued this behavior, receiving no less than seven “clear and unequivocal written warnings” from principals of three schools and two superintendents over the years, according to the findings of the Maryland State Board of Education.
The state board announced this week that it had upheld the Montgomery County school board’s decision to fire Picca in May 2011 for insubordination and misconduct. Picca, a popular teacher at Kemp Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, had appealed the county board’s decision to the state board.
Reached by phone Thursday at his Silver Spring home, Picca said he had no comment on the state board’s decision. When asked whether he planned to pursue the matter further, he responded, “That’s private.”
There have been no allegations that Picca sexually abused anyone. And, considered individually, the allegations over the years could be—and were—considered troubling, yet not illegal.
The state board described the events in the Picca case as "shocking."
“When confronted with such obvious inappropriate behaviors on the part of a teacher toward his students, it is our expectation and, we believe, the expectation of the school community, that the teacher will be removed from contact with students with alacrity,” the board said in its opinion.
“From the first complaint in in October 1993, 17 years passed with patterns repeated and reprimands issued. Yet this teacher was transferred to different elementary schools and remained in the classroom. That should never have occurred.”
MCPS stands by its actions and is pleased that the state board upheld the decision to fire Picca.
“When the most recent accusation came to our attention, we acted swiftly to remove Mr. Picca from the classroom and immediately pursue his dismissal. This decision has been fully supported by the hearing officer in the case, the administrative law judge and, now the State Board of Education,” an MCPS statement said.
“Mr. Picca's contention that he was wrongfully terminated has been thoroughly discredited by a careful and fair review of the facts. In fact, the administrative law judge wrote, ‘The appellant's (Picca) claims that he is the innocent victim of a witch hunt are fanciful and not worthy of credit.’ ”
It is exactly that review of the facts that gives one pause. Why didn’t MCPS fire Picca earlier for inappropriate behavior toward students—though “inappropriate” hardly seems to address some of the reported accusations. Reports of Picca’s behavior at Rachel Carson Elementary School in Gaithersburg in 1995 included asking boys to remove their shirts, photographing them, and having them “slide back and forth on his lap,” according to the administrative law judge’s report.
The parent of one of the boys involved reported these incidents to a teacher at the school, who in turn notified the principal. That parent also contacted county police, who interviewed five of Picca’s former students, but did not file charges against Picca.
Then-Superintendent Paul Vance issued a reprimand that described Picca’s conduct as “unacceptable, unprofessional and suspect,” and then transferred him to Luxmanor Elementary School in Rockville and warned that “further inappropriate activity” could result in serious disciplinary action, including dismissal.
Those allegations also resulted in an investigation of Picca by the county’s Child Protective Services Division, which found that his actions “indicated child abuse.” That finding, though contested by Picca, was upheld twice by another state administrative law judge.
But MCPS apparently was never told about the finding and Picca remained in the classroom, according to the report.
At Luxmanor, Picca was reprimanded in 1996 and again in 1999 for inappropriate conduct similar to what had occurred at his previous schools. In 1999, after an investigation, an MCPS investigator recommended that Picca be reprimanded once again and transferred to a school where “the principal is judged to be adept in monitoring his performance as well as his interactions with students,” according to the report.
In 2000, then-Superintendent Jerry Weast issued yet another reprimand for conduct that was “inappropriate, unprofessional and highly suspect” and ordered Picca to abide by a specific set of directives. They included prohibiting Picca from involvement in afterschool or club activities, or engaging with kids in anything related to bodybuilding.
“You should know that swift and drastic action will follow any proven allegations of you as much as asking a student to raise or remove a shirt or flex his muscles for you regardless of the reason…” wrote Weast, according to the report.
Then in April 2010, MCPS apparently finally had had enough. Once again, Picca had been accused of inappropriately touching a student, this time by a teacher at Kemp Mill. And officials learned that, in March of that year, he’d taken students to a basketball game at night and driven one home, clearly violating MCPS directives to not be alone with students.
Upon investigation, MCPS officials also learned of the long-ago findings of the Child Protective Services Division, the report said. In May 2010, Weast recommended to the county school board that Picca be fired.
Several colleagues came to his defense at the time, including some who joined him that August in accusing Kemp Mill Principal Floyd Starnes of sexual harassment, according to published reports. An MCPS investigation determined the accusations were unfounded, spokesman Dana Tofig said Friday.
In July, the administrative law judge issued his report, concluding that the former MCPS teacher “engaged in a pattern of conduct over many years which was reckless, brazen, unjustified, and most importantly, of grave potential harm to his students.”
Meanwhile, the state board took the opportunity to urge school districts to review their policies concerning teacher and staff conduct toward students, and to note that the MCPS record is full of directives to Picca that seemed to stand alone—and that he ignored.
“It would be prudent for school systems to review their personnel records to be sure there are no cases, like this one, lurking in their schools,” the state board said.