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S. Pasadena Child Abuse Case Ends; Feud Doesn’t

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A yearlong investigation into child abuse allegations sparked a media rush to South Pasadena’s Stancliff School and a bitter outcry by school parents against police tactics. The controversy ended with a whimper last month: a simple misdemeanor guilty plea and agreements by school officials to undergo counseling.

Yet the darkest elements of the Stancliff case involve not what was done to the children, but what the parents and school officials have done to each other.

The case, a rare outburst of public pettiness in a city known for its quiet, affluent rectitude, has been marked by a series of seemingly vindictive acts carried out with a vengeance against the school’s accusers and accused.

Both sides complain of repeated visits by regulatory agencies and police, blizzards of junk mail delivered to homes, shoving matches in court hallways, harassing and anonymous phone calls, unordered items charged on credit cards and a web of civil cases and cross-complaints that neither side seems willing to let go of. Both sides accuse the other of pathological lying.

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The criminal matter ended almost anticlimatically. Andrew Thayer, 23, the private elementary school’s former coach, was placed on five years probation after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor child abuse charges. Last Wednesday, his mother Judy Thayer, 47, the school principal, and teacher Joanne Lewis, 46, began a year of counseling under an agreement with the district attorney’s office.

But the hostility and harassment continue to this day, both sides complain.

“Nothing surprises me anymore,” said a grim Judy Thayer, a heavyset woman sighing with resignation.

Her accusers stand equally firm.

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“My life goal, no matter what happens, is to see that those people are not around kids,” said an angry Barbara Washington, a legal secretary and mother of a 12-year-old former Stancliff student. “We have a plan and another plan and another plan. Even if they have to raze it to the ground, like McMartin, that school won’t be in South Pasadena.”

The McMartin Pre-School case--in which a Manhattan Beach school was driven out of existence by bizarre allegations of child abuse that remained unproven after two criminal mistrials--seems to haunt everyone involved in Stancliff.

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The Stancliff accusers cite McMartin’s closure as a victory against child abuse. Stancliff school officials see their plight, like the McMartins’ owners saw theirs, as one of innocent people falsely accused. And police and the district attorney’s office say they conducted an impeccable investigation in the Stancliff case, using improved post-McMartin child abuse investigative techniques.

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Like McMartin, the Stancliff scandal erupted in a close-knit small town. Although outsiders often mistake it as part of larger Pasadena to the north, South Pasadena is a city in its own right with 24,000 residents, a 31-officer Police Department, retail shops strung along Fair Oaks Avenue and one movie theater, the single-screen, 1920s-era Rialto.

In attitude, however, South Pasadena more closely resembles its ritzy neighbor to the east, San Marino, with wide, quiet residential streets, well-maintained apartment complexes and large Craftsman-style homes.

For five decades, Stancliff quietly operated on the western edge of the city in what used to be caretakers’ buildings on a former ostrich farm. Judy Thayer’s parents took over in the early 1960s. Since then, condominiums have sprung up around the school, squeezing it between homes and railroad tracks.

With low tuition of $400 monthly per student, parents fleeing public schools from outside South Pasadena come to tiny Stancliff. The result, said Judy Thayer, who has owned the school since 1985, is 140 students in a racially, ethnically and economically diverse setting.

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The “benevolent democracy,” as Thayer calls her school, became embroiled in controversy in December, 1993, when parent Washington and two former Stancliff mothers, displeased with the school’s treatment of their children, met Ruthe Fesperman, whose three grandchildren had attended Stancliff. Fesperman, the children’s legal guardian, had been ordered to withdraw the children earlier that year after she tussled with Thayer over what Fesperman believed was mishandling of school field trip money earned in a bingo fund-raiser; verbal harassment of her oldest granddaughter, who she said was ridiculed by school officials for her blonde hair, and mistreatment of other children.

Fesperman, a trim, fashionably dressed grandmother, said her husband, Ron Fesperman, a retired homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, began investigating the school before his death in a May, 1993, traffic accident. She continued his work and has piles of personal diaries, legal papers and other documents to bolster her claims against the school.

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Fesperman and Washington, who become upset when they talk about the school, describe a place where children were singled out for harassment by teachers who spread vicious lies about children, made insensitive and racially offensive comments, and falsified grades and progress reports. The Stancliff staff amused themselves, the women claim, by picking out one child to harass each year.

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The accusers say children were severely disciplined and arbitrary rules were set for certain ones. Some youngsters were thrown into dumpsters or into the school ice machine and made to cross the nearby railroad tracks to retrieve lost balls, they alleged. They also claim that Stancliff students were required to clean up vomit or feces and that severe roughhousing was permitted, even to the point of injuring children.

Principal Thayer, her teachers and current Stancliff parents deny the allegations and say they are victims of a senseless vendetta by Fesperman.

Thayer said she asked Fesperman to take her grandchildren out of school because she could no longer tolerate Fesperman’s unfounded criticism. The principal said Washington, an African American, wrongly believed that her child was the victim of discriminatory treatment.

Feeling that the school was turning a deaf ear to them, the women began filing complaints with a variety of public agencies. In addition to the South Pasadena police and the district attorney’s office, they called the county health department, the South Pasadena Fire Department and the Community Care Licensing Division of the state Department of Social Services, the state agency that regulates preschools. Ultimately, Stancliff was forced to stop accepting preschool students because the school lacked a state license to accept children younger than 5 years old.

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The allegations prompted South Pasadena police--increasingly aware, like most law enforcement agencies, of the sensitivity of child abuse allegations--to summon about two dozen child abuse investigators from the Sheriff’s Department and surrounding police agencies. They served a search warrant on Jan. 27, 1994. Although South Pasadena Police Chief Tom Mahoney said the team exercised caution to avoid frightening the children and the district attorney’s office praised his professionalism, many Stancliff parents were outraged.

Uniformed police carried weapons and traumatized many of the children and some remain fearful of police, the accusers claim. They organized a letter-writing campaign that included harsh accusations against police signed by the children themselves.

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Nevertheless, most parents kept their children in school and refuse to believe the accusations, said Nancy Yepez, an eight-year member of the parent advisory board whose 13-year-old daughter attends Stancliff.

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“Our parents are very faithful to our school,” Yepez said. “They believe in Judy.”

Mahoney, who said he was hurt and astonished by the parental anger against him, ultimately came to understand it.

“We had challenged their understanding of a safe environment for their children and that scared them,” he said.

Mahoney contends that loyal Stancliff supporters soon began to hinder the police investigation. One child was spirited away to grandparents in Montana when detectives sought to talk to the youth.

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Police spent nearly five months investigating the school and interviewed scores of witnesses before turning the case over to the district attorney’s office.

Once there, more obstacles arose, Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Gordon said.

Fesperman reported receiving continuous, mysterious harassment. Her home phone rang at all hours of the night and day, loads of junk mail arrived daily, police and tow trucks were summoned to her home by unknown callers, her car was vandalized and a dead bird and a plastic bag of cocaine were tossed on her front lawn, she said. Washington and another mother also claimed to receive crank calls.

The Thayers reported crank calls and junk mail too. Animosity grew. Fesperman filed two small-claims actions, one against a Stancliff parent to retrieve money raised for a school trip to Washington, D.C., and another against a Stancliff music teacher who she claimed owed her children home music lessons. Fesperman, in turn, was sued by a parent from another school who became embroiled in the feud.

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Soon, the Thayers and their supporters were running into each other in Pasadena Municipal Court hallways and at nearby Ribet Academy, where Fesperman’s grandchildren now attend school. Pushing and shoving matches erupted in September at both places between the Thayers and Fesperman, with each side accusing the other of assault and battery and both filing police reports.

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Through all this, the district attorney’s office struggled to conclude its investigation, said Gordon, a high-level deputy district attorney now involved with the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Criminal charges finally were filed in mid-November--11 months after police served the search warrant--against Thayer, her son and two teachers. The court file was sealed by Presiding Pasadena Municipal Judge Terry A. Green to protect the children involved.

Thayer’s attorney, Salvatore Coco, minimized the charges against the school, saying that none arose out of criminal negligence but instead out of an admitted lack of sufficient control by Judy Thayer. None of the charges concerned school discipline or involved the ice maker or dumpster, he said.

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Prosecutors alleged that Lewis had required a child to wear the equivalent of a dunce cap, that another teacher had bruised a student while breaking up a fight, that Judy Thayer and Lewis had examined children’s underwear after human feces were repeatedly found in a school sink, and that Andrew Thayer had verbally harassed one student, injured another student when the child fell during a “trust exercise,” and made annoying phone calls to Fesperman.

Whether the actions occurred out of criminal intent or lack of sufficient control is irrelevant, Gordon said; children were harmed.

Gordon said the settlement of the charges was preferable to a lengthy trial that would have involved hundreds of witnesses.

“This was the best way to protect the kids, administer punishment, correct this conduct and heal the community,” Gordon said. “Our interest is not to have the community divided.”

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Yet the women who made the complaints say they aren’t satisfied with the criminal resolution and look to the civil trial for redress.

“We didn’t start all of this,” said Washington, her voice rising in offense. “We have been harassed.”

The school continues to operate, children still smile at the kindergarten teacher and the principal they call “Miss Judy,” and parents remain fiercely loyal.

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Thayer says she struggles now with $40,000 in legal bills and mortgages on her property. She appears, at times, almost numb as she goes about her duties and says she has sought therapy to cope. But she believes she’ll never lose the school because of support from parents.

“‘I’m going to do what I’ve always done,” Thayer said. “Keep my nose clean and just do my job.”


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