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Handling Allegations of Sexual Abuse Called 'Most Delicate' Job

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By all appearances, the New York City public schools and the Tahoma school district in Maple Valley, Wash., could not be any more different.

Separated by 3,000 miles of American continent, the two constitute, on the one hand, the largest school district in the country and, on the other, a rural system where all of the 4,200 students will claim one high school as their alma mater.

But in a reflection of the universality of a challenge faced every day in districts around the country, administrators in both places in recent months have had to confront the wrenching problem of allegations of sexual abuse of children by school employees.

As the manager of a school campus or district, it is the principal or superintendent who has to oversee the detection and evaluation of the problem, its report to the proper authorities, the school's own investigation, and--ideally--the prevention of such situations altogether, current and former administrators say.

On top of that, experts say, an administrator must keep the welfare of a child in mind even as he or she may watch the destruction of a colleague's reputation.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia require educators to report cases in which they have knowledge or reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been abused.

But if an allegation of sexual abuse is not handled properly, the administrator can be held accountable, perhaps by a state certification board or through lawsuits filed by parents of an abused child or by a school employee who feels wronged by a bungled or groundless accusation.

"It's a nightmare,'' says Ronald Brown, a professional-services executive for the Association of California School Administrators.

"This is probably the most delicate thing we have to do,'' agrees Donald Singer, the president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators in New York City, a union representing 4,500 members.

Indeed, one of Mr. Singer's union's members is currently embroiled in a controversy over her handling of an allegation of rape made last year by an 8-year-old girl against a school custodian.

Even Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez has become entangled in the issue. Going over the heads of the local school board, Mr. Fernandez appointed a panel of trustees to consider disciplinary action against the principal, Jewel Moolenaar. But Ms. Moolenaar last week struck back and filed a lawsuit charging that the chancellor's action oversteps his authority.

'Awful Lot of Flak'

In the Tahoma district 25 miles outside Seattle, meanwhile, two recent cases involving allegations of sexual abuse of current or former students by male teachers have also made for the kind of times that try administrators' souls, says Superintendent Edward A. Heiser.

In each instance, a popular, veteran teacher commanded considerable community support--each had, coincidentally, been named "Teacher of the Year'' by the local chamber of commerce.

As a result, while some people criticized the district for taking too little action in the cases, officials also took heat from those who felt that the accused teachers were treated too harshly.

The more recent case was closed when the teacher took early retirement last year. But the other, in 1986, ended only after the teacher, facing a job-termination hearing and criminal charges, took his own life.

At least one citizen accused Mr. Heiser of causing the teacher's death.

"That's when you look in the mirror in the morning,'' the superintendent says, "and say, 'Is this job really worth it?' ''

"You do what's right, and you just take an awful lot of flak,'' he concludes.

In the wake of those experiences, the Tahoma district last summer assembled a task force, including parents, social workers, and board members, to examine the district's policies and to see whether there were "some things we would do differently in the future,'' Mr. Heiser says.

But he notes that, since every case of alleged sexual abuse is different, "it's very difficult to establish a very firm policy'' about how each is to be handled.

Nevertheless, the district now has experts conduct a four-hour in-service training session on sexual misconduct for staff members and requires all employees to see a video called "Somebody Told,'' which portrays allegations of child sexual abuse against a fictional sports coach.

In addition, Mr. Heiser says, the district, in cooperation with the local teachers' union, is developing a presentation to be given to employees at each school called "Safe Touching,'' which will define the acceptable ways to touch a student that cannot be misconstrued as sexual abuse. It is expected to be in place by fall.

'Serious Mishandling'

While Mr. Heiser can look back on troubling cases now closed, a resolution is still some time away for Ms. Moolenaar, the Bronx principal who is at the center of New York's current imbroglio.

Last September, the office of the special commissioner of investigation for the school district came out with a report that determined that she was responsible for "serious mishandling'' of the young student's rape allegation in March 1992.

The investigators charged that Ms. Moolenaar, then the acting principal of Community School 129 in the Bronx, obstructed the police investigation of the girl's alleged rape by conducting her own inquiry into the complaint and by alerting the custodial staff--including the suspect--to the complaint before it had been reported to the police.

The investigators also concluded that Ms. Moolenaar "subjected the child to a brutal and humiliating inquiry in the hopes of getting her to recant her allegations.''

The girl was questioned in front of a number of adults, including her parents and teacher, and was called a bad student and a liar, according to the report.

The report recommended that "strong disciplinary action'' be taken against Ms. Moolenaar, including possibly firing her.

Two days after the inquiry by Ms. Moolenaar, a custodial cleaner at the school was arrested and later indicted on rape and sexual-abuse charges.

Following the release of the report, the local Bronx community school board removed Ms. Moolenaar from her principalship and reassigned her to work in the district offices, pending resolution of the allegations against her.

But in recent weeks, the local board has voted twice not to discipline her.

Expressing his disapproval of the local board's handling of the allegations against Ms. Moolenaar, Mr. Fernandez this month named three trustees to take over the review of the need for discipline. They voted last week to hold discipline hearings.

Ms. Moolenaar was unavailable for comment. But her union, in last week's edition of its newsletter, says that it is "standing by'' her.

The ãŸóŸáŸ newsletter argues that the special investigator's office made public the charges against Ms. Moolenaar without airing her side of the story, "and has, in fact, tried and convicted her in the media.''

The union statement goes on to say that Ms. Moolenaar did not set out to interrogate the girl in the meeting with her parents, but instead tried to discuss behavioral problems the girl had been exhibiting in school. Ms. Moolenaar also says she notified authorities "as soon as she was able to sort out the facts'' about the girl's allegations, the union says.

Sorting the Facts

When administrators take it upon themselves to do their own inquiries into sex-abuse cases, says Edward F. Stancik, the special commissioner of investigation in New York City, both the speed and quality of investigations suffer.

Instead, he advises administrators to "get the professionals involved as soon as possible.''

To avoid pitfalls, school administrators should make themselves aware of the problem of sexual abuse, have a policy for handling such allegations, and conduct training sessions with staff members--such as those in the Tahoma district--to insure they know what to do, Ivan Gluckman, the counsel to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, advises.

Several experts agree that there needs to be much more training for current and future administrators on this management challenge.

"We should have practice in it, should have role-playing in it ... continually, not just for one day,'' Mr. Singer of the C.S.A. says.

But even reporting an incident can be fraught with complications. An administrator must sort fact from emotion, whether the person reporting the incident is a parent, employee, or student.

"Sometimes it can be very difficult in terms of what a child thinks is abuse,'' says Mr. Brown of the California administrators' group. Sometimes a teacher's hand "on a body somewhere'' triggers an allegation of sex abuse, he says.

As ambiguous as such a case may appear, the former principal and assistant superintendent cautions, "it is much worse not to report something,'' because an administrator may be defenseless later if slapped with a lawsuit by a parent "for something you didn't do.''

And Scott D. Thomson, the executive secretary of the National Policy Board for Educational Administration, notes: "The school from a legal standpoint is always in a stronger position if it can say that it acted in the best interest of the student.''

Such liability can be a special concern to a small district like Mr. Heiser's, which has limited resources and can ill afford to pay a large financial claim if it loses a lawsuit.

"You can destroy a district,'' he says.

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