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For One Falsely Accused Teacher, ‘Sorry’ Isn’t Enough

WASHINGTON POST

If Dan Domenigoni has one word of advice for schoolteachers who find themselves the target of malicious and false complaints by their students, it is this:

Sue.

Five years ago, Domenigoni, a gruff tech-ed instructor in Portland, Ore., watched his life and career nearly disintegrate when a group of his junior high students claimed he had touched them inappropriately.

For seven weeks--from Thanksgiving through Christmas and his wedding anniversary--he waited in agony under the scrutiny of a police investigation and saw his name tarnished on local television news. He stopped eating and lost 15 pounds in two weeks.

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So when the students recanted, Domenigoni decided their apologies weren’t enough. He took the children and their families to court, winning judgments totaling $70,000. And he believes other wrongly accused teachers should fight back too.

“Do it. It will send a message,” he said. “And make sure the papers hear about it. It’s an ordeal, but it’s worth it.”

Domenigoni’s case has strong parallels to that of Ronald Heller, the Montgomery County, Md., middle school teacher who recently was exonerated after seven students admitted concocting their claims of improper sexual contact by him.

In Heller’s case, too, the students might pay the consequences: Six have been criminally charged with filing false reports, and all seven will have to transfer to other public schools once they serve their suspensions.

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Both cases are rare.

Legal experts and education groups say that most teachers are extremely reluctant to sue or press charges against students even when they have strong complaints against them.

But some predict such reluctance might change in a climate in which teachers feel increasingly vulnerable to false accusations.

“Teachers are both frightened and angry about this,” said Michael Simpson, assistant general counsel of the National Education Assn. in Washington, D.C. “If students continue to do this, teachers will go after them, and they should.”

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The prospect of teachers and students facing off in the courtroom is just one of the ways that the school environment has changed, in part because of a spate of accusations against teachers--both true and false.

For several years, teacher unions and school districts have warned employees against touching or hugging students or spending time alone in a room with them, for fear that innocent gestures could be misinterpreted or twisted, resulting in a complaint of abuse or harassment.

School systems also have developed a more aggressive “legalistic” approach to dealing with complaints, said Vincent L. Ferrandino, executive director of the National Assn. of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, Va.

After his students’ stories started crumbling and prosecutors decided not to pursue his case, Domenigoni sued the girls for defamation and their parents under Oregon’s parental-liability statutes.

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He did it to clear his name--and to make a point.

“Let’s drive this home and drive it home hard,” he said. “I do not want any child to not report any incident of real abuse. But you cannot lie. Don’t even embellish.”

As part of their settlement agreements, the students sent Domenigoni letters of apology, which he described as “heartfelt.”

“I can accept what they did and why they did it,” he said. “But I will never forgive them.”

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