A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Chapter 11: Student Rights : Allegations Fly, and the Balance of Power Shifts

Times Staff Writer

For one teacher at Northridge Middle School, campus reforms stop at his desk.

That's where he spends much of his time since a series of unfounded child-abuse allegations caused him to retreat from student contact.

After three separate investigations, each of which put him in fear of losing his job and his freedom, he changed his teaching methods, especially with girls.

"I'm very easy," he said. "I never get angry with them anymore."

Although this teacher's experience was worse than others, it reflects a common anxiety. Some teachers said the concern over protecting students from predatory adults has encouraged an open season on classroom instructors.

And, said one teacher who compared the experience of being investigated to something that goes on in a police state, teachers who ask the most of students are the ones most likely to be accused.

"The kids own the school. They run it," said this teacher, who was accused of leering at female students. Like several others, he asked not to be identified for fear of starting a new round of accusations.

He was eventually cleared. But not before suffering through torturous weeks during which the administration treated him like a child molester while his main accuser was believed implicitly, he added.

"I regret deeply going into the teaching profession," he said.

UTLA President Helen Bernstein said such fears are "very common" throughout Los Angeles schools. It has gotten to the point that teachers fear to hug a student, she said.

Beryl Ward understands teachers' fears that students can take potshots at them just to scare them, she said. But, "I've not seen that happen."

"It may sometimes be very unfortunate for teachers when students make these allegations," she said. "But it's important we investigate. We are adults, and we can handle it."

A generation ago, power on campus rested with adults. Most students never dared to accuse their teachers of doing anything wrong, and those who did were heavily outgunned by the teachers.

The national concern over child abuse and a wave of scandals in the Los Angeles Unified School District have changed everything, said Joe Luskin, an administrator in the district's middle schools unit.

"About eight to 10 years ago, there were a number of school district employees convicted of sexual abuse," Luskin said. "Other people on campus did not take the proper action, so we formalized everyone's responsibilities."

Now, students are made aware of their rights as early as elementary school. Each teacher at Northridge and elsewhere must sign a form every year stating that they are aware of their responsibilities to report incidents of abuse. The school administration must follow strict procedures whenever they receive a child-abuse report. If the incident is considered serious, police are called and an investigation is initiated.

Frank Eichorn said students these days are as knowledgeable about their rights as a jailhouse lawyer. "If you yell at them or give them a bad grade, two or three get together and say, 'He hit me.' "

As a result, the atmosphere has changed so dramatically that some teachers will walk right by an on-campus fight.

"We are taught in education school to separate them," said Gladys Kelly, who teaches English. "But some people will let a fight go because they're too nervous" to touch the combatants.

One teacher's nightmare began six years ago. A girl who was constantly clamoring for his attention thrust a piece of paper in his face while he was trying to bring a disorderly class under control.

He involuntarily waved his arm to get the paper out of his eyes and struck the girl's hand. She was holding a pencil, which punctured her skin. Shocked at the injury he caused, the teacher put his arm around the girl to comfort her. She ran off to the office and said he had molested her.

That set off a three-day investigation. The police were called. "I went through hell," he said quietly.

After several interrogations, he said, the girl admitted she lied and the matter was dropped. He was relieved, but his troubles were just beginning.

Two years later, the teacher was helping a girl with a lesson when she leaned back against his hand, which he had rested on the back of her chair to brace himself. She accused him of improperly touching her, and another investigation was launched.

After being cleared a second time, the teacher found out the girl had been molested three times. He also learned that she had seen the yearbook of another girl who had written the word "pervert" over the teacher's name as a result of the earlier incident.

The third time, a boy claimed the teacher beat him. He presented a torn shirt as proof.

"The police were here like that," the teacher said. During the ensuing weeklong investigation, he insisted repeatedly that he hadn't touched the kid. One night that week, the teacher stopped at McDonald's for dinner, and another boy walked up with a smirk on his face.

"My cousin got you in trouble," he laughed. Then he turned on his heel and strode off as though the whole incident were a game.

Once more, the accuser eventually recanted, and the matter was dropped.

Everybody on campus knew about the wave of accusations, Eichorn said. "The students had him on the run," he said, shaking his head. "They were laughing about it in class."

This is not to say, according to teachers, that child abuse does not occur or is not an issue that should be taken seriously on campus. But some charge that the new mood of suspicion runs counter to everything school is about. The learning process, they say, is by nature an intimate relationship. The teacher's job is to mold the minds of his students. But how much shaping can be done, they wonder, if the potter does not feel free to touch the clay?

Shayla Lever, director of the child abuse prevention office at L. A. Unified, says her office processes about 5,000 abuse reports each year, though only 5% involve complaints against school personnel. Two-thirds of the physical-abuse complaints against school employees are ultimately classified as unfounded, she said, which does not mean the accusations were false. It means either that the incidents did not rise to the level of abuse under the law or that the incidents were classified as accidental, improbable or, in some cases, lies.

"I know some people are falsely accused," Lever said. But in her experience, she said, such incidents are the exceptions. Lever was not familiar with the case of the unidentified teacher but said the fact he had been accused three times makes her suspicious of him.

Luskin, however, said he has no doubts about the teacher. He offered to move the man to another school to give him a fresh start, but "to his credit," he decided to stay.

The UTLA's Bernstein said she and other teachers from Los Angeles recently attended a meeting in Miami, where they saw teachers hugging students encouragingly. It was a nice, loving atmosphere and the visitors from California were taken aback.

"All of us noticed it," she said, "because our reaction was, 'You would never give a kid a hug in L. A.' People have gone overboard" in their efforts to protect children from abuse, she said.

"Kids are very astute about the laws," said Sandy Nakagawa, a teacher at Percy Middle School in Gardena, one of several who attended a three-day session in the Practitioner Center. "Now too often we're guilty until proven innocent."

Glen Kessler, a tall physical-education teacher with a bit of a macho swagger and the remains of a crooked-mouthed New York accent, said he tries "nine different things before I put my hands on girls to break up a fight. I will try to have two girls break them up. Only when it reaches the point of danger will I put my hands on them."

Kessler said that in every school there are unfounded child-abuse complaints. "We're at the mercy of one or two kids. We're at the point where you can't even be you. You have to be legal," Kessler grumbled.

Other teachers at Northridge had stories. Mel Ben Zvi, a social studies teacher, said he found himself called on the carpet by the principal after putting his hand on a girl's head to get her attention. The student accused him of pulling her hair.

Ronn Yablun said he was summoned to the principal's office when a boy said he called him stupid. Susan Castaneda said she bumped into a student one day, and he accused her of hitting him.

Ward said it would be unfair to assume that, because a child is a troublemaker, he or she is making up a story. "Because it's uncomfortable, some teachers get defensive" when they are accused and investigated, she said. "We should be able to realize it's not personal."

The students are aware that Ward is an ally. One teacher intercepted a note passed back and forth between two girls one day. The first girl said she was angry because her teacher would not let her leave class to get a Coke she had left elsewhere on campus. Food and drink are not allowed in class.

"I decided not to do my work" to show her displeasure, the first student wrote.

"If I were you, I would tell Mrs. Ward," her friend wrote in reply. "That's what I did when I was pissed at Mrs. Gonzalez."

Critics charge that the atmosphere on campus also undermines the authority that a teacher needs to do the job. You can't always get students to work by talking sweetly, they say. Sometimes you must raise your voice to get their attention. If you are afraid to do that, education suffers.

The teacher accused of leering at female students said his accuser, who had been in trouble continuously in class, came in the next day with a smug look on her face and told him she didn't have to do anything he said. He backed off from disciplining students for fear they would rush to Ward with new accusations.

"Someone who has them be responsible becomes a target," he said.

Nobody believes society should relax its vigilance on child abuse. But some teachers believe the balance of power on campus has swung so far away from adults that teachers need some protection.

"If at the beginning, the kid who lied about me had been expelled, that would have been the end of it," said the male teacher accused three times. Because nothing was ever done to exonerate him publicly, the allegations became established in students' minds as fact.

The students' perspective is, not surprisingly, somewhat different from that of teachers. Elizabeth Diaz, an outgoing eighth-grader who has gotten straight A's since coming to Northridge, said some teachers deserve their reputations. "Some of them will look up a girl's dress," she said.

Another student agreed that some classmates make up stories. But this student saw no harm done. "They usually believe the teachers anyway," the girl said, shrugging.

In this atmosphere, teachers have adopted defensive tactics. Joe Boss, a mustachioed English teacher who is considered one of the school's most effective managers of children, said his team of teachers has adopted firm policies to minimize the danger of abuse allegations.

If a female student needs to be told to improve her hygiene, a female teacher handles it. If a student shows up on a warm day dressed too immodestly, teachers are instructed to move the girl out of the line of vision. Teachers are also warned not to lean over students for fear of being accused of peeking down a blouse.

And there is one cardinal rule in dealing with modern students: "You're never in a room alone with a kid, no matter what sex the kid is," said Marilyn Hayes.

Bernstein says this is sad. She understands the need to protect against child abuse. She knows cases in which the schools did not act swiftly enough to investigate school personnel. But, she said, the number of abusers was very small.

Now, Bernstein said, she knows good teachers who had been very caring, who no longer show that to their students.

"I'm not sure it was all worth it," she said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
56°