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False Accusations Turn Dream Into Nightmare in Chicago

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Albert Thompson just wanted to give something back to his community.

What he got in return was a nightmare.

Six weeks into his stint as a substitute teacher in the Chicago public schools last spring, and after just one day at Fuller Elementary School, 10 students there accused Mr. Thompson of molesting them.

The accusations turned out to be false, but the story made headlines across the nation because of reports that one of the 4th graders had paid nine of her classmates to join her in accusing Mr. Thompson. School officials now say the reports of bribery were incorrect.

No criminal charges were ever filed, and Mr. Thompson was cleared to teach again by the city's school board.

But that did not save his reputation. It also did not protect his dream of becoming a black male role model for inner-city schoolchildren from shattering under the glare of the media spotlight.

'A Rough Day'

Mr. Thompson, who is in his early 40's, has spent most of his professional life as a college administrator. Most recently, he was the director of student activities for Chicago State University.

But as someone who got his master's degree in politics and education from Teachers College, Columbia University, he was always interested in--and critical of--public schools.

So, he figured, he should put himself in the system before he did more bashing.

On May 9, he took over a 4th-grade class of about 30 gifted and talented students at Fuller Elementary on Chicago's South Side.

He acknowledges that they were an unruly class and that he disciplined them. He says he told them he was going to leave a note about their misbehavior for the regular teacher. He knows some of them were worried about the impending bad report.

"It was a rough day for me,'' he said in a recent interview.

The next day, the children leveled the accusations against him. He first learned of the allegations a day later when a local reporter appeared at his door.

Mr. Thompson said he has forgiven the children and is not bitter.

But, he said, "There is nothing I could've done in that class that would warrant my life being put on a block.''

"It's the worst type of charge to clear,'' he added. "Molesting children to me is the worst thing anyone can do in society.''

Mr. Thompson said he will not go back to K-12 teaching and is looking for a job in higher education.

Belief and Punishment

Mr. Thompson is not alone in feeling as though he has been through an ordeal.

Deborah Harris, the mother of one of the children involved in the incident, said last month that she still believes the children. She said the investigation by police and other authorities was incomplete.

"It seems very strange that they would fabricate something of this magnitude,'' said Ms. Harris, a writing instructor at the school and a former two-term president of Fuller Elementary's local school council.

Ms. Harris says she does not know exactly what happened in her daughter's classroom in May, but she says she knows her child says Mr. Thompson touched her across her developing breasts and hit her with a ruler.

Each of the children was suspended for 10 days and had to write a 10-page composition on the seriousness of their actions.

The school's principal, Judith Riggins, said there is no way to know exactly what happened in Mr. Thompson's class. But, given the outcome of the investigation, she had to send a strong message to the children.

"Hopefully, never in their lives would this ever happen again,'' Ms. Riggins said.

During the suspension, the students received counseling. But the parents, who were outraged at the punishments for honor-roll children who were not known discipline problems, refused to let the children write letters of apology to Mr. Thompson, Ms. Riggins said.

The principal faults Mr. Thompson for not seeking assistance from other school staff members to control the students and for allegedly shutting the hallway door to the chaotic classroom.

She said teachers have to learn "not only to avoid evil, but to avoid the appearance of evil.''

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