Next week, a male teacher in my stepson's Newport Beach elementary school will go on trial charged with molesting four of his female students. It's a trial that will further scar the already-scarred participants--and I don't think it had to happen the way it has. Neither do a lot of the other people most deeply involved.
According to the charges filed against him, the teacher touched the covered buttocks and bare chests of four of his fifth-grade students just outside the classroom over a period of several days in mid-October. When the students involved passed a note among themselves agreeing to report the teacher, he intercepted it and took it to the principal.
According to a chronology of events reconstructed by Newport-Mesa School District officials, the four girls involved in the alleged incidents and two girl witnesses went en masse to the principal to report their charges. The principal immediately set up a meeting between the children and the accused teacher, who denied the accusations. The children were then--at their request--removed from his class. They were separated from other students for several school days while the teacher continued to teach
The night after the meeting, the parents of one of the victims reported the alleged molestation to Newport Beach police--which, according to the principal, made it unnecessary for him to do so. When the police completed their investigation, the teacher voluntarily took a leave of absence and has not returned to the classroom. On Oct. 26, he was formally charged and pleaded not guilty to four counts of misdemeanor child molestation. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 6 months in County Jail and a $1,000 fine. The trial, originally set for Nov. 29, was continued to Jan. 10.
A court of law will determine any guilt. Meanwhile, the ugliness of this situation has been multiplied many times over both by the way it evolved in the school and by the widespread inclination of a great many parents, teachers and other students in the school to prejudge the case on the basis of little or no factual information.
Because the teacher was popular, the guilt generally has been affixed to his accusers. According to the girls' parents, the result has been so traumatizing that the girls involved are under the care of a professional therapist. The girls say that for several weeks after the charges were filed, they were verbally harassed repeatedly on the playground at school and accused by their peers of being "sluts" and "liars." The mother of one of the children said she received an anonymous phone call accusing her daughter of "coming on" to the teacher.
"The school is basically saying it didn't happen," said the mother of one of the alleged victims. "My daughter comes home crying every day. She no longer has any respect for authority, and she doesn't trust anyone."
Kelly MacEachern, the deputy district attorney who will argue the case, feels strongly that much of the uproar was unnecessary. "Many more serious cases of molestation are reported," she said, "and this one was blown all out of proportion by the way it was handled."
She said that there are specific procedures, mandated by the state Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, to deal with such situations. Under the act, health professionals and most school employees are required to report immediately any suspected child molestation to the police or local social services agency. A social worker or a local police officer is then assigned to look quietly into the accusations.
At this point, the teacher is removed from the classroom on some pretext that will not attract public attention.
If the accusations are determined to be unfounded, the matter will be dropped. However, if they are found to be valid, the teacher may be quietly but formally removed from teaching if the offense is mild. Or, charges will be filed and the courts will decide guilt or innocence.
If the school district's chronology is accurate, virtually none of these procedures were followed in this case. MacEachern said: "Forcing victims to confront an accused--especially when the victims are small children--is something we never do, even in very serious crimes."
Newport-Mesa School Supt. John W. Nicoll said: "School procedure and police law run courses both parallel and divergent. When the police come in, we stay out of their way. The police have jurisdiction. We will conduct our own investigation to figure out where we made mistakes once the matter has been determined by the courts. But the fact remains that justice is stood on its head in such cases. It's the only kind of law I know in which the accused has to prove his innocence rather than vice versa."
Pressed on the performance of school officials, he said that "in retrospect, the school should have moved more quickly to remove the teacher from the classroom, although I think the end result would have been the same."
I'm not so sure of that. If proper procedure had been followed, next week's trial, widespread prejudgment of the case and a lot of trauma might have been avoided. As the mother of one of the girls said to me: "There's got to be a lesson here for other schools: that it's so terribly important for people to be encouraged to keep an open mind."
There are other lessons, too--mainly that the price of improvising policy in such a situation can be chaos. Nicoll said that as a result of this case, school officials are preparing a new district policy statement of specific procedures to be followed under similar circumstances in the future. Let us hope so.