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Parents Urge That Preschool Reopen Despite Abuse Charges

March 17, 1985|GERALD FARIS | Times Staff Writer

MANHATTAN BEACH — Claiming that the Children's Path preschool should not have been closed despite allegations of child sexual abuse, more than 80 parents whose children attended the school demanded last week that the state preschool licensing agency allow it to reopen.

One parent reportedly said that the only abuse the children are suffering is being barred from their school.

John Hagarty, community care licensing director of the state Social Services Department, said he listened to parents at a private meeting Wednesday night and agreed to reevaluate the closure and report to the parents in a week.

"Reevaluation does not mean the situation will change," he said.

Hagarty said his reevaluation of the closure will be based on the parents' "strong commitment that they want to participate in the reopening of the school and, if we agree, how it might be done."

Licenses Revoked

The Manhattan Beach school and the Children's Path of Hermosa Beach, which had shut down voluntarily in October, were served license revocation orders March 6 by the state officials.

The schools, which are both owned by Jill B. Schwartz, were the sixth and seventh South Bay preschools to be closed since eruption of the McMartin preschool child-abuse scandals more than a year ago. Seven people associated with McMartin have been charged with 208 counts of molestation and conspiracy involving 41 children.

The Children's Path closures were based on allegations that seven children--six at the Hermosa Beach facility and one who was at Manhattan Beach--were molested between January, 1982, and October, 1984.

Parents were given a report by the Manhattan Beach police that said eight more children at the Manhattan Beach school may have been molested, although investigations since last December have failed to substantiate the charges.

Hagarty said his department did not feel it "was appropriate for us to include (these cases) as the basis for administrative action" against the school.

Insufficient Reason

Bonnie Brey, a spokeswoman for the parents, said the parents do not believe that one allegation of child abuse is sufficient reason for closing the school, which enrolled 70 children.

"The McMartin school was closed because there was a conspiracy," Brey said, adding that there "is no evidence that there is a conspiracy" at Children's Path in Manhattan Beach.

But Kathleen Norris, a social services department spokeswoman, said, "It only takes one molestation accusation to close a facility."

Norris said the Manhattan Beach schoolchild allegedly molested was under the age of 5 and claimed to have been "fondled in the breast and genital areas."

She said "there is apparent reason . . . to believe the child is telling the truth," based on a department investigation.

Police detective Sgt. Jim Noble said the child's allegations are being investigated and police have not been able to establish "beyond a reasonable doubt" that they are true. But he said the evidence, which was turned over to the state, was sufficient for the social services department to act.

Four Suspects

The police report given to the parents on Wednesday said the investigation of the other eight cases is continuing. It said there are four suspects, three females and one male.

According to the report, four of the alleged victims evaluated by a therapist denied having been abused. Medical examinations of three children "show findings consistent with sexual misuse, but not conclusive," the report said.

"We are confident we have protected our children," said Brey, explaining that parents last November formed a "validation committee" under which at least one parent is at the school at all times. "This will be mandatory with the reopening," she said.

The Wednesday meeting, held at the American Martyrs School, was closed to the press by a vote of the parents. Only Manhattan Beach Children's Path parents, state officials, police and child abuse specialists were allowed in.

Earlier, several Manhattan Beach parents contended that their school was unfairly linked to the Children's Path school in Hermosa Beach because Schwartz owns both of them. Schwartz was told by the state in February that she could reopen the Hermosa Beach school, but she said she decided not to because of anonymous threats of personal injury and vandalism.

Blamed on Hysteria

The Manhattan Beach parents blame the closure on what parent Randy Berler called the "hysteria" of Hermosa Beach parents, who, they claim, pressured the state to close both schools.

Schwartz will ask for separate hearings to appeal the closure of her schools, although her attorney said she does not intend to reopen the Hermosa Beach school.

Schwartz would not comment on the molestation allegations at either school.

Parents have started a letter-writing and telephone campaign aimed at getting the school reopened. On the receiving end are the social services department, legislators, Los Angeles social services officials and the police.

In a letter to Hagarty, Ronald Schendel said he has been a member of the parent committee and had observed the staff and school environment: "I can state unequivocally that there has been no questionable behavior, and a conspiracy for the purpose of child molestation by the staff of this preschool is not possible."

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