January 08, 2006

"Where Do I Go To Get My Reputation Back?"

That was the question asked by Ray Donovan, Reagan's Labor Secretary, after he was found not guilty of corruption charges. It is the question that many folks found not guilty ask. And I suspect that it was the question asked by Virginia teacher who was accused of sexual abuse of a student, found not guilty, but who was fired anyway.

His answer? Back to court.

But things have gone quite wrong for him in the process -- not only has he been denied his day in court, but he and his lawyer have been sanctioned by the judge!

After all the difficulties David Perino encountered as a teacher -- his arrest on charges of sexually abusing a student, his acquittal in court and his firing in spite of that -- he thought he had one last recourse: Sue. Sue them all.

And so he did. Last summer, Perino filed eight lawsuits against the Prince William County school system and several of its employees, including former superintendent Edward L. Kelly, who died Thursday night.

But last week, Perino's quest to win his job back and clear his name was smacked off course when Prince William Circuit Court Judge William D. Hamblen ordered sanctions against him and his attorney. Hamblen declared that the lawsuits constituted harassment, the school system's attorney said. The judge ordered the pair to pay more than $14,000 to cover the school system's legal fees.

Perino and lawyer Pamela Cave have less than 30 days to appeal the sanctions. They say they intend to.

Such sanctions are quite rare, which leaves some observers wndering why the judge took this course of action.

"I don't recall one of our attorneys ever being sanctioned," said Robert Chanin, who has been general counsel for the National Education Association since 1968. "They are ordered if a lawyer truly brings a frivolous case without good faith or a legal basis. Don't harass the other side and waste the court's time."

And let's be honest here -- the damage to this man's good name and the loss of his job are pretty substantial damages, especially when a group of public officials state that they don't care what a jury of his peers had to say on the matter.

The dispute between Perino and the school system began Dec. 12, 2003, when a 20-year-old student with Down syndrome accused the 16-year veteran of sexually abusing her inside his empty classroom during school hours. The woman alleged that Perino tried to sodomize her; Perino said they talked about photographs on his wall before he ordered her to return to her regular classroom.

His first trial, in May 2004, resulted in a hung jury. Months later, a second jury found him not guilty of aggravated sexual battery and attempted forcible sodomy.

Last spring, Perino faced a School Board grievance hearing to keep his job. But School Board members voted to fire him, saying they believed he was guilty of sexual abuse. They also discovered pornographic images on his classroom computer and accused him of downloading the items. Perino denied doing any of it and said other people had access to his computer.

No I will grant that there is a different burden of proof at a criminal trial and an employment hearing. But this just points out the problem of allowing additional hearings and sanctions against an individual found not guilty. It strikes me that the concept of "res judicata" should apply here -- the matter has been decided by a court, and is not to be reexamined in another setting.

And therein lies the problem, especially in this age when there are more and more accusations of sexual misconduct by teachers coming to light -- how do we deal with those falsely accused, and where do they go to get their reputations (not to mention their careers) back?

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