Ex-Principal Says He Still Suffers Over False Charge

Times Staff Writer

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

But in pretrial papers filed with the court, district attorneys insisted that “it was not the act of cleaning the little girl’s soiled buttocks that gave rise to the transfer but rather the act of being less than candid when asked on numerous occasions to explain to district personnel what happened.”

Roseman’s problems began the morning of Oct. 27, 1983, when the Valencia Park principal looked in on a kindergarten class taught by a substitute teacher. He noticed one girl who was being particularly disruptive and took her from the class to have a talk about listening to the teacher.

It was outside the classroom that the girl soiled her pants. At a school where he used to teach, Roseman recalled in an interview, “we had an unwritten rule that the first staff member that smelled it had to clean it up.”

As he related in a 1987 court deposition, Roseman “felt really bad about it” because he thought his disciplining of the girl might have frightened her. So the principal took her to an empty classroom, wet some paper towels, had the little girl take off her panties and cleaned her up.

Roseman went about his business, thinking nothing of the incident until he was confronted later in the day with accusations of child molesting from the mother and then an angry father who threatened to “blow my head off,” Roseman said.

Remained Silent

Scared and panicked, Roseman decided to essentially remain silent about the controversy when first confronted later in the day by school officials--in particular, by Supt. Johnson.

In speaking with Johnson, Roseman denied that he had done anything wrong but never explained what actually happened, court papers show. Roseman told Johnson that “nothing happened,” school officials said.

Roseman acknowledged that his silence may have struck others as suspiciously awkward. But in his court deposition, he defended his decision not to submit to “pressure” from Johnson to “tell him everything.”

“Duncan (Johnson) is interested in one thing, and that’s protecting his job in the district,” Roseman said. “I didn’t have faith in him. . . . I didn’t feel Duncan had my best interests in mind. He would do whatever he could do to smooth things over, even if it meant hurting me.”

Three months later, after molestation charges had been filed and then dropped once the truth was known, the board demoted Roseman.

Attorney Mark Roseman believes his client was actually “a victim of all the hysteria over the child-molest issue.”

“For (the school district) to take the position that if he had just told the truth everything would have been cool is speculative. It’s hindsight, and it ignores the whole climate of allegations and gun-shy teachers that was starting up then,” Roseman said.

“This is an important case because it will make the statement that teachers and administrators aren’t fair game for baseless accusations of molestation. John Roseman was done a tremendous disservice.”