At the time, the gesture seemed innocent enough to John Roseman. The then-principal of a Fullerton elementary school never imagined, one October morning in 1983, that his simple act of cleaning up a 5-year-old girl who had soiled her pants would spark a scandal that was to change his life.
Hours later, he was confronted by an outraged mother who accused Roseman of sexually molested her daughter.
At a time when the McMartin preschool case and other child-molestation imbroglios were first grabbing headlines, Roseman was left shocked, panicked and numbed by the accusation, he told attorneys later. He remained silent about the incident. "I knew that I was in trouble," Roseman said.
The trouble came. Prosecutors lodged child molestation charges against Roseman. And even after the truth of the incident emerged and an embarrassed district attorney's office dropped the charges, the Fullerton school board demoted Roseman anyway, from principal to teacher.
The school board said it had lost confidence in its Valencia Park School principal because of what some officials called his poor judgment in cleaning up the girl and his "lack of candor" in refusing to explain the situation several times while he sought legal advice.
The "emotional devastation" from that time still lingers, Roseman said. But the legal questions are finally nearing answers as Roseman prepares to resolve a lawsuit that he filed against the school district more than 4 years ago.
Roseman charges that the district un fairly demoted him after the widely publicized scandal broke and effectively sought to rob him of his constitutional right to remain silent about charges that ultimately proved baseless.
More painful than the financial losses from the demotion, the soft-spoken Roseman said in a recent interview, was the social stigma and intense feelings of betrayal that the board's action carried.
"They pulled the rug out from under me. I invested my life in that district for 14 years, and when I needed them most, they abandoned me," said Roseman, 48, now director of teacher education at the University of La Verne in east Los Angeles County.
Scheduled to Start Today
The trial of Roseman's charges against the district is scheduled to start today but will probably be delayed because an Orange County Superior Court judge is still considering a final request from the school district to throw out Roseman's claims for unspecified damages.
Attorneys for Roseman and the school district met as recently as last Thursday to try to resolve the case, but attorney Mark E. Roseman--no relation to his client--said the district has yet to make any settlement offers. In June, 1984, the district rejected a $1-million claim he filed against the district.
John Roseman alleges that he suffered substantial losses in seniority and wages when he was forced to give up a $42,000-a-year post as principal to take on "menial office tasks" and then to teach elementary school. He soon left the district to take a job at La Verne that he says pays him significantly less than did his job as principal.
All parties involved say that if Roseman's claim does in fact go to trial, it may prove a difficult experience to have to recreate that emotionally wrenching time.
"It's just been so painful for all of us, for me and my wife and children," said Roseman, who sought psychiatric treatment following the accusations and was briefly hospitalized.
Rather Not Relive It
"We'd all just rather not have to relive it, but I'm willing to do it to show I was wronged. But even then, it won't (compensate for) all the pain and anguish that we've gone through."
Fullerton School District Supt. Duncan C. Johnson acknowledged in an interview that a trial will dredge up memories that many within the district had been trying to forget. "It was an extremely difficult, trying time for all of us," he said.
But the superintendent quickly added: "I am thoroughly convinced that I and the district took the appropriate steps." It was Roseman's "lack of candor" in talking with school officials that forced his demotion, Johnson said, using a phrase often cited by school officials at the time.
Robert C. Fisler, a member of the district board of trustees and a co-defendant in the suit, maintained in an interview, however, that Roseman's "poor judgment" in cleaning up a 5-year-old girl in an empty, closed classroom--rather than having a female staff member do it--also contributed to the board's controversial decision.
"The way the whole thing was handled right from the start--we just felt he was very irresponsible, and we can't have irresponsible principals. We can get away with irresponsible teachers, but not principals, so we had to demote him. . . . We felt we did what we had to do."
J. Michael Declues, the trial attorney defending the district, was unavailable for comment, and other lawyers who have worked on the defense refused to discuss it.
Less Than Candid