The initial news was bad enough. A music teacher at their children’s elementary school in Montgomery County was in jail, accused of keeping child pornography on his laptop computer.
Then details began to emerge. There were other images, described by police as inappropriate, with at least some taken inside the school. It prompted the most obvious question, one that has worried parents for nearly two months.
“We don’t know if this man has pictures of our children,” Angelica Nava said in Spanish, her voice rising Tuesday night during the second of two emotionally charged meetings at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School, along the eastern edge of Silver Spring.
The allegations against Lawrence Joynes, 54, have detectives looking into his 27-year career as a teacher in Montgomery County schools. Investigators are sorting through a series of images — Joynes told police he made videos of students as he inserted his finger into their mouths — and weighing what might legally constitute child pornography, according to authorities.
One particular concern is Joynes’s e-mail. Police said that Joynes last June sent similar videos to a child pornography producer in South Carolina. In the background of the videos, which involve a young girl, are musical instruments and what looks like a classroom, according to charging documents.
Since Joynes’s Feb. 27 arrest, parents have questioned whether school administrators were watching him closely enough. Two parents said in interviews that they had told school officials about incidents they considered inappropriate. One reported that Joynes asked a child to call him “Daddy.” Another said the teacher made comments in front of second-graders about a relative being a drug addict. A third parent said at a school meeting that he had complained about Joynes, but did not describe his concern. School officials said publicly that significant action had been taken in that instance.
Two teachers said in interviews that they reported Joynes for actions they found worrisome, including locking classroom doors while he was inside with children.
There is no indication that what parents and teachers reported about Joynes amounted to criminal offenses. The case highlights the line that school officials must walk, bordered on one side by actions that are inappropriate — or worse — and on the other by actions that might be odd but benign.
It’s a line that in this case, some parents say, was marked with red flags.
“It’s hard to imagine how he remained in place teaching such young children for so long, given the string of complaints,” said Luis Clemens, the parent of a former student who said he is frustrated “that the alarm bells didn’t start ringing.”
Joynes is being held in Baltimore County on $1 million bond. A letter mailed to him at the jail did not yield a response and his lawyer, James Dills, declined to comment.
School officials have said they can’t comment in detail on Joynes’s case, but Bronda Mills, a community superintendent for Montgomery schools, told parents and teachers that the school system would investigate the handling of the case and review its procedures across the system.
At a meeting with parents, she acknowledged receiving some complaints about Joynes in recent years, but indicated they were nothing like what he is accused of doing. “Never have I received information that this teacher was taking inappropriate pictures of children . . . or anything that would make me believe I needed to report something to the police.”
Joynes started teaching in Montgomery classrooms in 1985, spending the past decade at New Hampshire Estates, a school of 510 students in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Parents say he was beloved by many students — often viewed as funny and engaging, with a classroom of toys and instruments.
But some teachers and parents say issues arose that left them uncomfortable.
Mary Silverman, a teacher at New Hampshire Estates until last June, said she had reported Joynes for hugging a young girl between his legs as he sat on a stool and for keeping his classroom doors locked when he had three first-grade girls inside for a “lunch bunch.” Both complaints, she said, were made verbally several years ago.
Teacher Ellen Holder, who worked with Joynes for nearly 10 years before moving to another school, said she reported him to the principal last year after a first-grader said the teacher had tickled her. Holder said she also twice went to school officials after finding that Joynes had locked his classroom door with students inside.
Both teachers were among about 75 parents and educators who attended the school meeting last week. Mills told them complaints about Joynes were handled “the way they should be handled.”