3 Sex-Abuse Scandals Leave Mark on N.Y. District
UNION SPRINGS, N.Y.--Just over four years ago, when Randy Coon was looking to escape the political and fiscal turmoil he was facing as the superintendent of a school district some 70 miles west of here, he was thrilled to discover the opening for a schools chief in this small rural town.
Nestled along a natural cove on Cayuga Lake, one of the state's scenic Finger Lakes southwest of Syracuse, Union Springs (pop. 1,200) appeared to Mr. Coon to be a "sleepy little Mexican town'' where he could spend the last years of his career concentrating on students and curriculum, and whiling away weekends reeling in salmon and rainbow trout.
Apart from the fishing, his expectations could not have been further from reality.
For over the last 18 months, residents and employees of the Union Springs Central School District were badly shaken by three separate child-sex-abuse scandals that led to the downfall of a trusted parent and two veteran teachers.
It was almost more than the district, which enrolls just 1,258 students, could take.
"It was the nightmare of my life,'' said David J. Jerva, the principal of A.J. Smith Elementary School, where one of the teachers worked.
"Obviously, I don't think we're ever going to be over this,'' Mr. Coon said one recent gray morning.
Partly because there were no trials in the two criminal cases that resulted, questions still linger about just how many child victims there were. And just as unsettling are the questions--and guilt--about how such horrors could go unnoticed and unreported for so long in such a tightly knit community.
"I think we all felt we had let the children down,'' said Connie Tallcot, a longtime resident who owns the village bookstore.
'One Huge Family'
For a growing number of school districts nationwide, such painful revelations are becoming all too familiar.
In part that is because of what Mr. Coon calls the "Anita Hill syndrome''--the new freedom people feel to discuss possible sexual abuse and harassment, whether to local police, as in the case of Union Springs, or on television talk shows.
In Union Springs, the scandals have left their mark. The district now screens teaching applicants and school volunteers more carefully. Trust, initially shattered, is slowly returning. But parents pay closer attention to their children's activities and make a mental note of the make and color of a car that pulls up to a group of students.
"Basically, what this whole thing did was bring attention to the fact that although we are a rural community, we are not immune to the sickness of society,'' said Ellyn Slywka, a school board member and mother of eight.
While the district spreads out far beyond Union Springs, the town is home to one of the two elementary schools and the large, red-brick combined middle and high school that dominates the two-lane main drag, Route 90.
In the 19th century, Union Springs was a bustling center of the plaster-making industry. Today, the largely agricultural area is known for its lake marinas, and city dwellers swell its population in the warm months.
Union Springs is small enough that every telephone number starts with the same three-digit exchange and safe enough that residents leave the keys in their cars over night.
The village is "one huge family,'' said Rene Jordan, a school board member. It is, she said, a place where people think, "Gee, a great place for my kids.''
The Scandals Break
In the spring of 1992, the first scandal broke.
Joseph Contrera, a parent who still has stepsons in the district, was indicted on 38 counts of sodomy, sexual abuse, and endangering the welfare of a child.
Mr. Contrera, who always had two or three cameras dangling around his neck, used to present student-athletes with action snapshots of themselves. He was known as someone who was always willing to carry water or chase an errant soccer ball, according to Superintendent Coon.
But, authorities said, Mr. Contrera also took photographs of nude boys in the middle school/high school locker room and made a videotape of himself and a boy engaging in sex acts.
On the day his trial was to begin, he pleaded guilty to 11 of the counts against him and is now serving a sentence of 2 to seven years. He is appealing his conviction.
Then, in the space of one week last April, two longtime teachers fell into disgrace.
Dennis Woodard, a popular 6th-grade science teacher and sports coach, was arrested on federal charges of sexual exploitation of children and trafficking in child pornography after a 13-month investigation and sting operation.
In May, he pleaded guilty to all six counts.
Last week, Mr. Woodard was sentenced in federal court to nine years and two months in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release.
Police say there probably was not a time during his 23 years here that he was not molesting boys.
It was not the first such offense for either Mr. Woodard, who had been convicted in 1967 near Buffalo for photographing nude boys, or for Mr. Contrera, who served time in this county in 1978 for sexual misconduct with a minor, a misdemeanor, law-enforcement authorities said.
Mr. Contrera and Mr. Woodard were friends, but police said they did not have victims in common.
The prior records of the men have led district officials to call for mandatory fingerprinting of school employees and access to national criminal records.
The second teacher, William Machold, for 20 years a highly regarded high school music teacher, was placed on leave after two former female students alleged that he had had sex with one of them and had sexually touched the other. He resigned and surrendered his teaching certificate. No criminal charges were brought.
Mr. Machold's lawyer at the state teachers' union refused to comment on the case last week.
A 'Devastating' Betrayal
Today, the tranquil appearance of the town belies the wounds left by the three scandals, especially that involving Mr. Woodard, which one teacher termed "devastating.''
While the Contrera case was "shocking because that was the first one,'' some locals were not that surprised by the allegations against Mr. Machold because rumors of his alleged misconduct had circulated at the time his accusers were students, said Ms. Tallcot, the bookshop owner.
But Mr. Woodard was a different story.
"If anyone had ever told me to make a list of teachers that were absolutely the best thing that ever happened to our district, he would have been one of the first teachers I would have named,'' said Ms. Slywka, the school board member, who had a daughter in Mr. Woodard's class last year.
The pain of that betrayal by a trusted teacher and colleague suffuses a conversation with Mr. Jerva, Mr. Woodard's former principal.
Mr. Jerva, a sober and earnest man with a passion for professionalism, begins a guest's visit with a tour of the A.J. Smith School, which serves 300 4th to 6th graders.
Mr. Jerva's entire 25-year career has been spent in this building--17 years of it as a teacher before he became principal eight years ago.
It has been part of his family life as well as his professional one: His wife Susan teaches 4th grade here, his two older children are graduates, and his younger son is currently a 5th grader.
So a violation of this school is in a way a violation of him.
"I'm not a bitter person,'' Mr. Jerva said as the afternoon light from his office window began to fade.
"But,'' he added, "I'm not sure I will ever in my career or my lifetime totally come to terms with [what] Dennis Woodard's activities took away.''
ABC's Instead of Rockets
Although some people found him personally overbearing, Mr. Woodard was known as a teacher who made science interesting and fun for both girls and boys.
Mr. Jerva said his own son was crushed when he found out he would not have Mr. Woodard, who had sparked his older siblings' interest in science.
This year, the former science classroom is now used for special-education students. After Mr. Woodard's arrest, the students and staff packed up the model rockets and airplanes that dangled from the ceiling, removing all traces of the disgraced teacher. Today, a chart of cursive ABC's and the faces of U.S. Presidents decorate the room.
Such changes were "a good, healthy way of letting go,'' said Mr. Coon, an affable, strapping man who maintains a remarkable degree of equanimity about the scandals.
But Mr. Jerva also noted that the children also may keep the more pleasant memories. "I never for one minute told them they should throw that away,'' he said.
Mr. Woodard also coached many school sports over the years, including football--when the district had it--soccer, basketball, and girls' softball. He was involved, too, in a summer sports league and worked many years at local Boy Scout camps.
"He did things every community hopes they have people around for,'' Mr. Jerva said.
These days, though, the principal said he advocates a "'qualified trust' philosophy'' that teaches students about reasonable and unreasonable requests by adults.
"I think there are people who deserve to be put on a pedestal,'' he said. "The key is that the pedestal not be so high that they're beyond question by anybody.''
Grief and Sympathy
The reactions of those students and teachers who were closest to Mr. Woodard or Mr. Machold closely resemble those that follow the death of a friend or relative: grief, shock, denial, anger.
At first, some of the students felt sorry for Mr. Woodard, alone in his jail cell, and wanted to write to him or put up a plaque in his honor. But, said Mr. Jerva, "by about the fourth day, they'd heard enough of Mr. Woodard,'' and such plans fell by the wayside.
The death analogy even extended to the flowers and notes of sympathy that came to the school and staff after Mr. Woodard's arrest.
The district gave residents an opportunity to ask questions and vent their emotions at a community meeting held the week after the Woodard and Machold cases had broken.
Mr. Coon and Mr. Jerva thought they would be vilified that night, as more than 500 people packed the gymnasium at the middle school/high school. Mr. Jerva even prepared his family for the likelihood that his resignation would be demanded.
But the event was not a virtual lynching but instead a kind of "pep rally,'' Mr. Coon recalled, with speaker after speaker rising to offer words of support or a testimonial of faith in the school district.
"You walked out of that meeting with the feeling people really liked their schools,'' said George Fearon, the high school librarian and the town supervisor.
Few townspeople could blame the district, "because they were all duped,'' said Marion Krauter, the elementary school guidance counselor.
"If you blame it on the school,'' she said, "what about what you let him do in the community?''
The summer break gave parents, students, and educators alike a bit of a respite from the scandals. This fall, some observers say that the district's teachers, who have always been cautious to avoid questionable behavior, have not changed their teaching style or interactions with students.
Two teachers in particular, Ms. Jordan said, have shared their newly heightened worries about well-meant physical contact with students that could be misinterpreted.
One, a kindergarten teacher, told her that many times a day she must zip up the pants of little boys and girls who have just been to the bathroom. And some of the zippers stick, requiring extra time and contact.
While she still fixes the zippers, Ms. Jordan related, the teacher wonders whether her actions will come back to haunt her.
"Some of the staff feels that maybe parents are going to look a little closer,'' Ms. Jordan said. They are, she added, "still jumpy.''
But Joan Frackelton, another 6th-grade teacher at A.J. Smith School, was more upbeat.
"I think we've bounced back,'' she said. "Life goes on.''
It goes on more easily for some than others. In the weeks since April's revelations, Mr. Coon has found himself fielding "ripple effect'' complaints--so far unfounded--from highly sensitized students and community members about an imagined touch or an alleged action by a teacher.
The scrutiny extends beyond that aimed at teachers, Ms. Tallcot said.
"I think individuals are much more aware,'' she said. "[They are] going to look at that person who is very helpful and always at the school and they're going to wonder, 'What is his motivation? Are they doing this for the kids, or doing this for personal gratification?'''
The true effect on the students, meanwhile, may not be known for some time, said Ms. Krauter. "It takes children a long time to know what questions they want to ask adults.''
But in the Woodard case, Ms. Krauter said, one 6th grader was soon able to put the whole thing in perspective.
"He was a good teacher,'' the youth said, "But he was a lousy role model.''