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Indian Pupils Left 'Prey' To Abusers, Panel Is Told

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Washington--Official indifference and a loophole in federal child-protection laws have allowed many cases of sexual abuse in Indian schools to continue unchecked, according to teachers, social workers, and law-enforcement officials who testified before a Senate panel last week.

The special investigative committee, which is part of a larger inquiry by the Select Committee on Indian Affairs into charges of corruption among Indian officials, has been looking into reports that the sexual molestation of children has become a widespread problem on reservations.

Child molesters "gravitate" to reservation schools operated by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, federal investigators testified, because employees of the largely rural, isolated facilities often are not closely supervised. Such conditions make it easier for offenders to "prey on their victims," the officials said.

Witnesses testified that child abuse on reservations often goes unpunished for many reasons, including confusion over lines of law-enforcement jurisdiction and a lack of trained investigators.

Moreover, they said, a substantial number of incidents of abuse are never reported to the proper authorities.

At the hearing, officials of bia schools--as well as those of public schools on Indian reservations--repeatedly were criticized for attempt4ing to block investigations into alleged abuse or allowing those charged with abuse to leave quietly, frequently to find teaching positions on other reservations.

"I have never seen a more clear failure of government responsibility in dealing with the American population than what I have heard here today, and the most tragic thing is that it has involved children," said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and co-chairman of the investigative panel.

In response, bia officials conceded that there had been serious problems in the past. But they pointed to recent efforts to strengthen screening methods for teachers.

Federal investigators accused school officials of frequently failing to respond to allegations of abuse.

Administrators often seemed to be in a "state of denial," an agent said, and were "afraid to face the possible embarrassment of prosecution."

David L. Small, a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Phoenix, testified that his agency had investigated 96 sexual-molestation reports on the 20 Indian reservations in Arizona since 1986. Most of the reported incidents involved bia and public-school employees, he said.

Of those cases, none had been reported to authorities by school employees, he noted.

School officials often "obstructed, delayed, and attempted to thwart"8federal investigations, Mr. Small reported, by refusing to release the names of victims, preventing investigators from interviewing children without parental consent, and convincing victims to recant previous statements.

The Senate panel also uncovered a tangled web of corruption and attempted cover-ups surrounding an Arizona teacher who allegedly had molested more than 140 Indian students.

Bia officials testified that they were aware of allegations, but took no disciplinary action other than transferring one employee.

Senator McCain sharply reprimanded bia officials for their inaction.

"We all know that child molestation is a tragic aspect of society today, but I know of no case off of an Indian reservation where someone can go for years without being caught," he said.

"Looking back, there are a lot of things we should, and could, have done," said Kenneth Ross, assistant director for the bia's education offices for the south and west regions.

One vivid example of apparent indifference by school officials was provided by a teacher's aide at a Cherokee elementary school in North Carolina, who testified that she had been pressured by school administrators seeking to squelch her allegations of abuse against another teacher.

The teacher's aide said that in 1983 she had seen Paul W. Price, who was later convicted on federal molestation charges, fondling a young boy in the school hallway. She reported the incident to the school principal, who promised to investigate.

Later, the teacher's aide learned that Mr. Price had been charged with abuse once before, while employed at a nearby public school.

Arthur Justice, principal of the school where the earlier abuse allegedly took place in 1971, had called for Mr. Price's dismissal after hearing evidence of abuse from several students.

But a county superintendent decided instead not to rehire Mr. Price, Mr. Justice recalled in testimony, and so he was able to find work at the Cherokee school the next fall.

Mr. Justice said he wrote several letters about Mr. Price to the principal of the Indian school, but his warnings went unheeded.

Mr. Price taught at the school for 14 years. In videotaped testimony, he estimated that during that time he may have molested as many as 25 boys.

Mr. Price, who is currently serving a 10-year sentence, also said that he had been questioned by his supervisors about the incidents, but never disciplined.

One supervisor simply recommended that Mr. Price "get married," he claimed.

Witnesses argued that school officials have been able to ignore sexual-abuse allegations because of a weakness in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974, which required each state to pass a law making it a crime not to report known abuse to the proper authorities.

However, the legislation apparently does not cover federal employees, which would include employees of schools on Indian reservations, witnesses said.

Senator McCain may introduce legislation requiring federal employees to report suspected abuse, according to a committee aide.

All of the witnesses testified in fa8vor of the proposal.

Senator Thomas A. Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, pointed to another potential benefit of such legislation. By increasing the number of abuse reports made to the bia, he predicted, a new law would indirectly result in more federal prevention and treatment funds going to reservations.

Several bia social workers testified that many reservations have few or no trained staff members to work with victims of sexual abuse. Many victims suffer severe emotional problems and often attempt suicide or become sexual offenders themselves, the social workers said.

bia officials noted that a new agency policy, which went into effect in December, requires all those seeking jobs working with children to undergo a criminal-background investigation.

William Mehojah, branch chief of bia elementary and secondary programs, said all teachers must go through a vigorous review by the Office of Personnel Management before entering the classroom.

The new policy requires that three personal references and three past employers be contacted by telephone. In addition, the fingerprints of job applicants must be checked against fbi computer records.

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