Published Online: March 6, 1996

Presumed Innocent

Pleasanton, Calif., reveals its aspirations in its name. Set amid the hills of golden grass that give California its nickname, between the San Francisco Bay and the Central Valley, the century-old town didn't even have a professional fire department of its own a generation ago.

Now, "the city of planned progress," as it calls itself, is a booming community of 55,000; its farms have given way to bedroom subdevelopments and the largest business park in the northern half of the state. Although three federal lockups and a county jail lie just outside its borders and crime-plagued Oakland is only 20 miles away, Pleasanton offers a refuge from the harsh realities of city life; many area police officers make their homes in Pleasanton. Ideals and expectations that might seem archaic elsewhere are still alive there.

Serious crime is rare in Pleasanton. When a serious crime is committed, it's more than just upsetting; it comes as an affront, a violation of some imagined contract. Although the town is in fact named after a Civil War general, one could easily believe it took on the name in the hope that life here would be pleasant.

But that Mayberryesque idyll was shattered in March 1994, when a popular and respected kindergarten teacher was arrested and charged with molesting several of his students at Fairlands Elementary School. Thanks to the news media, people throughout the Bay Area quickly came to know Neil Rennis Shumate--not as he had been known before, as a Boy Scout leader, devout Mormon, and dedicated educator, but as a deviant accused of fondling young children's genitals, massaging their chests, licking their ears, and whispering, "I love your bones."

In Pleasanton, the reaction was as surprising as it was immediate: Many teachers and parents lined up behind Shumate, discounting the allegations even before the facts became clear. As the case grew, so did the vehemence of the denial among those who could not believe the accusations could be true. Even after a jury convicted Shumate of every charge against him, many of Pleasanton's teachers remained firm and outspoken in their support, giving money for a possible appeal and shunning the second-year teacher who blew the whistle on him. Equally disturbing, it became apparent in the aftermath of the trial that for years school officials had taken little action on reports that Shumate was touching children in terribly inappropriate ways.

I covered the Shumate trial for a local newspaper. For me, a teacher-turned-journalist, the willingness--the eagerness--of local educators to jump to the defense of a man judged beyond a reasonable doubt to have hurt young children presented a simple and disturbing question: Why?

Before he was sentenced to a dozen years in prison, Neil Shumate, now 51, lived almost all his life in Hayward, a town several miles west of Pleasanton that borders the San Francisco Bay. His father, a marine electrician, was a manic-depressive and probably an alcoholic. His mother, a beautician, was Mormon and raised her son in her faith. An animal lover from childhood, Shumate once said he was first attracted to Joan Westerlund because she was the only person he knew who had horses. The attraction grew, and the two eventually married. She brought two boys to the marriage, and they had two boys and two girls of their own. The couple also took in foster children, including a long-term foster son who was one of Shumate's most vocal defenders during his trial.

For most of his 23 years as a classroom teacher, Shumate taught kindergarten and 1st grade. He became something of a local legend for his commitment to teaching. A reading program he developed, with a "crazy letter friend" for each letter of the alphabet, delighted children into learning. Shumate wanted his students to get as much individual attention as possible, so he urged mothers of his young students to volunteer in his classroom. Students who excelled were offered sleepover parties and rides on the ponies and horses that he and his wife raised at their home in the rural hills above Hayward. Parents spoke glowingly of Shumate and begged to get their children into his class. (He often told people during his trial that he could have filled his classes with students whose parents had asked for him specifically.) Outside the classroom, too, Shumate earned a reputation as a do-gooder, working with the 4-H club and the Boy Scouts, serving as an active member of his church, and running (unsuccessfully) for the county board of supervisors.

The trail of events that ultimately sent Shumate to prison began Wednesday, Feb. 2, 1994, with the words of a 1st-grade girl on the playground of Fairlands Elementary School. The girl was telling her young teacher, Jill Paddack, how much she liked her. Paddack responded that she was sure the girl liked all her teachers. But the girl said no, not her kindergarten teacher, Mr. Shumate. Paddack asked why not, and the girl replied, "Because he put his hand down my pants."

As it turned out, this was not the first time school officials had heard such complaints about Shumate. According to a probation report prepared to help the judge sentence Shumate after his conviction, a number of similar incidents had been reported over the years. In 1987, a student's mother confronted Shumate and John Bristow, Fairlands' principal at the time, with her son's allegation that the teacher had put students on his lap and rubbed their stomachs and inner legs. Shumate, according to the probation report, defended himself, saying the stroking "relaxed the child to read." Two weeks later, the mother confronted both Shumate and Bristow again, this time because the boy said Shumate had been "pushing him." Oddly, Shumate again said this was his way of "calming down" the boy. (After Shumate's conviction, Bristow stated in a letter to the probation department that he had "never had any complaints or criticisms of Neil Shumate related to inappropriate touches.")

In 1992, a boy and his mother told Principal Cathy Rainey about an incident that took place while Shumate was serving as a fill-in chaperone at a 5th-grade nature camp. According to the probation report, they told Rainey that Shumate had repeatedly hugged the child, even after the boy asked him to stop. In addition, they said Shumate had lifted the boy in the air, rubbed his crotch, and told the boy he loved him. Immediately after returning from the camp, a group of girls told Rainey and another teacher that on the bus ride back, Shumate sat down next to a particularly noisy girl and rubbed and patted her thigh. He told the girl and her friends that they would have to "make up time" at his house if they were not good. Rainey told the probation investigator that Shumate's "apology and explanation" had satisfied the boy's parents. As for the girls, Rainey said they were a difficult group to handle and that she had taken care of the incident herself. (The girls came forward again with their account after Shumate's arrest, telling the probation investigator that perhaps "these people would believe us now.")

Then, on April 9, 1993, a doctor at Kaiser Permanente in Pleasanton called the police to report what she'd been told during an examination of a 5-year-old. During the office visit, the doctor said, the boy's mother repeated her son's account of having "his privates" touched by Shumate during music class. According to police, the boy's mother had told Rainey about the incident. When a detective interviewed the principal, she told him, according to his one-page report, that "she does not feel that Shumate is the type of teacher who would be involved in something like this." The detective also interviewed the boy, who repeated that he had been touched but gave varying answers when asked how many times Shumate had touched him. The boy gave the names of two other boys Shumate had fondled, but those two boys, when questioned, denied they had been touched. As for Shumate, he said he could not remember ever having the boy on his lap. The detective closed the case, reporting that there was "no evidence of a crime."

Time and again, it seems, teachers and administrators, for one reason or another, had decided not to believe and not to take action, despite a California law that requires them to report any incident of suspected child abuse to the authorities. Until Jill Paddack came forward in 1994, the only person who had been in touch with the police or Child Protective Services about Shumate's behavior was someone outside of the schools--the Kaiser doctor. (The failure of school officials to pursue these earlier reports underlies a civil suit by the victims' families. The lawsuit, which names Shumate, Rainey, and the district, charges that the schools "ignored and/or condoned [Shumate's] behavior and conduct" and "failed to protect the children.")

But a serious inquest was launched in 1994, after Paddack reported the statement of her 6-year-old student. As part of that investigation, police interviewed dozens of Shumate's former students. Six--including the sister of the girl on the playground--recounted similar incidents and agreed to participate in the prosecution. As many as 20 others who were unwilling to take the stand also told police that Shumate had fondled their privates; massaged their stomachs, chests, and legs, sometimes with his hand under their clothing; or kissed and licked their ears. Many complained that he had administered birthday spankings and had often used the phrase "I love your bones." One of the most surprising witnesses was a former teacher's aide who worked in Shumate's classroom when he was 18. The man, now in his 30s and a convicted child molester himself, told investigators that he'd had sex with Shumate in the classroom after school. He said Shumate had confessed to him that he'd molested one of his foster children. (The man was not permitted to testify in court about the sexual encounter because it was seen as irrelevant to the child-molestation charges.)

After a month of police interviews, the district attorney's office decided it had enough evidence to bring charges. Shumate was arrested at his home on March 8, 1994, on seven counts of child molestation. As the investigation continued, the number grew to 10. The teacher was released three days after his arrest, putting up a rental property he owned as security against his $100,000 bail. Prosecutors made what might seem a generous offer--no jail time if Shumate pleaded guilty, registered as a sex offender, and left teaching. He refused.

It was then that investigators began talking to Shumate's foster children, and the case quickly ballooned to 25 felony counts, as three of the children came forward with some of the most graphic charges yet. One foster child, who was about 5 at the time, described how Shumate and his wife molested him while all three were naked in bed. The eight counts stemming from that emotionally troubled child's statements, however, were dropped during the trial, for reasons that remain secret by court order. The child never took the stand.

After Shumate's arrest, one would expect his colleagues and the parents of former students to distance themselves from him, if not shun him altogether. But nothing of that sort happened. In fact, more than 70 parents, teachers, and friends showed up at his arraignment to voice their support. In interviews at the courthouse that day, some parents offered an explanation that later became a central defense: Shumate's affectionate manner was misunderstood because he was a male elementary school teacher.

"We're surprised and shocked because we know him," said Ruth Hoyt, who taught with Shumate for six years. "We have no doubt he is innocent. They've taken a bunch of little things and put them together." Joan Doppler was a parent volunteer in Shumate's class for three years. "If anything happened in there or if there was anything to be seen, I would have been one of the first people to spot it," she said. "I have never seen him do anything wrong." Kathy Lloyd, who over the years has had four children in Shumate's class, said that until his arrest, Shumate would still come out on the playground and hug her 4th-grade daughter. "I just think it is hard to be a man in this profession," she explained.

Two months after Shumate's arrest, his fellow teachers, in perhaps the most dramatic show of support, overwhelmingly re-elected him the vice president of the local teachers' union. Shumate's accusers did not fare nearly as well. Several of the children were taunted and shunned by schoolmates, and their parents were bombarded with threatening phone calls. Jill Paddack, the young teacher who reported Shumate, was seen by many not as a heroine but as a villain. Scorned by a number of her colleagues, she told at least one person that she was going to quit teaching when the year was over. (She later reconsidered and now teaches at another school in Pleasanton.) Stung by all the negative publicity, Paddack refused throughout the trial, and since, to talk with the press.

In October 1994, two months before the trial, Pleasanton Police Sgt. Dow Timmen told the San Francisco Chronicle that the Shumate case "has polarized the community; it has destroyed friendships and families."

The trial began in December, shortly before Shumate's 50th birthday. It was a heady matchup of lawyers: Jill Hiatt, a high-powered deputy district attorney, and Patrick Clancy, a successful defense lawyer specializing in child-molestation cases. Hiatt had lost only one case in her career--the only case she had litigated against Clancy. In her opening statement, Hiatt talked about the similarities in the different children's stories and how the youngsters had suffered. Clancy attacked the investigation, calling it mismanaged and inept and asserting that investigators' questions had led the children to falsely believe they'd been abused. He noted, as well, that all the alleged acts took place before a classroom full of children, with adult visitors frequently coming and going.

The prosecution, of course, rested on the children's testimony. One after another, the nine youngsters--ranging in age from 5 to 13--took the stand, some sobbing, some withdrawn, one or two beaming at all the attention. They described how, in school or in their foster home, Shumate's hands had probed their nipples, buttocks, and genitals, sometimes through their clothing, sometimes through their underwear, sometimes skin to skin. Their initial statements were usually clear, but under cross-examination, they became confused. The prosecutor asked her questions briefly, but cross-examination dragged on. Under Clancy's questioning, the children often became befuddled or unresponsive. Some contradicted themselves. Others seemed willing simply to provide answers that would get them off the stand and out of the spotlight.

The prosecution and the defense both called dozens of witnesses. Among those for the defense was Lee Coleman, a psychiatrist who also testified for the defense in the celebrated McMartin Preschool trial in Los Angeles, a case now widely believed to have stemmed from false allegations drawn through suggestive questioning. Coleman spent three days on the stand, attacking the way investigators had interviewed the children and put their case together.

Shumate himself never testified. In a statement that amazed and bewildered everyone, particularly Shumate's supporters, Clancy said he was keeping Shumate off the stand because he has effeminate gestures and a voice that is stereotypically associated with gay men. Saying he was confident that he'd already won the case, Clancy claimed it was not worth the risk of putting Shumate on the stand and having jurors react negatively to him. "He's very flamboyant, waves his hands, and they may interpret something that's not there," Clancy told me at the time. "There's no sense taking the risk."

For his part, Shumate said Clancy's decision irritated him. "It's not my idea," he told me. "I've dreamed of giving my side for 11 months. He and I don't agree. But he's the lawyer, and he's the smart one."

After two months and 91 witnesses, the trial ended with Clancy giving the longest closing statement of his career. The case was handed over to the members of the jury, who deliberated for five days. They returned a verdict that stunned nearly everyone: guilty on every one of the 16 counts charged. The jury foreman told me the next day that the adult witnesses for both sides had done little to impress the panel. The jurors, he said, could find no reason to doubt the children's word, and, in the end, as they examined each count one by one, they believed the children.

At the sentencing, Judge John Kraetzer, who had been at pains to appear impartial throughout the trial, unleashed his anger in a lengthy, impassioned statement from the bench. He told Shumate of his disgust at the proven acts of molestation and the many other unproven incidents alleged in his probation report, at Shumate's continuing denial of guilt, and at the antics of his supporters. After months of legal maneuvering, Shumate was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Sending Shumate to prison, however, hardly put an end to the controversy surrounding the case. Throughout Pleasanton, the question of his guilt remained open, despite the fact that a dozen impartial people had listened to the facts and agreed unanimously on all 16 counts. Particularly among school families, the case left deep, bitter divisions. Even before the trial, children of Shumate's accusers were no longer welcome at the birthday parties of the children of his defenders. Adults found their own ways of being hostile: They scratched paint on cars and placed threatening phone calls. "It was very hard for us to leave our home without incurring some form of harassment wherever we went," one family wrote to Judge Kraetzer. "People looked angrily at us and even asked us how we could live with ourselves for what we were doing." The family, which was moving out of state, was sent a threatening note. It warned, "We will contact the school where your three children will go and tell them what a troublemaker [your child] is."

But the questions the trial raised loomed largest in the schools. And nowhere, except maybe in Shumate's home and church, was his guilt more frequently denied than among teachers. I interviewed lower-grade teachers throughout Pleasanton's seven elementary schools and didn't find a single person who clearly stated that the jury had done right or who felt Neil Shumate shouldn't be around children. To me, it was one of the strangest and most upsetting facts about the case.

For many, perhaps most, of his colleagues at Fairlands, there is no question: Neil Shumate is an innocent man, railroaded by misguided authorities who misinterpreted a teacher's affectionate touches. "Something terrible, even bizarre happened in this court case," Karla Bruen, one of Shumate's colleagues, wrote Judge Kraetzer after the conviction. "I would call it a travesty of justice. This man deserves a new trial. The truth must come out." Sonya Howes, the president of the local teachers' union, agreed. "It's wrong when a child can just make an accusation," she said. "Then, if you get a prosecutor or people who handle it in the way it was handled in Pleasanton, a teacher wouldn't have a prayer in the world." In another letter to the judge, a teacher offered this intriguing explanation for what she suggested was merely effusive physical warmth: "One of the problems in teaching young children is that you are isolated from society in general, five days a week," she wrote. "As society's values or standards of acceptable contact gradually change, a teacher in this environment would not necessarily change or even feel the need to change unless something was brought to their attention."

For Shumate's defenders, the issue was not molestation but interpretation. "I feel strongly that some innocent touching by Neil has been gravely misinterpreted by a few people who are confusing their children with 'good touch-bad touch' information," Bristow, the former Fairlands principal, wrote Kraetzer. Although Bristow acknowledged that a district program designed to teach children to reject inappropriate touching was OK, he said "there were some children who were overly sensitive to the techniques used by the presenters."

And indeed, this is the notion to which many of Shumate's defenders cling: that times have changed and that an overly suspicious society misinterpreted Shumate's innocent, caring hugs and touches. Perhaps, as Clancy suggested in his closing argument, the children had misunderstood when Shumate tucked their shirts into their pants.

Some of Shumate's supporters warned that the verdict would have a chilling effect on classroom practice, leaving teachers too fearful to hug and in other ways show physical warmth to children. In his letter to Kraetzer, Bristow wrote that Shumate had been "wrongfully convicted of child molestation based solely on innocent, nurturing, and caring touches. This miscarriage of justice ... will certainly have an impact on the entire teaching profession." Sue Thompson, an educational therapist and Shumate acquaintance, echoed this point. "It has long been known that infants who are not touched die," she stated. "Young children also need to be touched. ... It is a very sad and sick society that determines they don't want their children touched in any context. Teachers, health-care workers (including physicians), day-care workers, coaches, etc. will all be made to live in fear. After all, anyone, at any time, can now say that their touch was inappropriate, and they'll be sent to jail as a criminal."

It would be one thing if this kind of extreme reaction were limited to Shumate's closest friends and supporters. But this wasn't the case. Not one of the teachers I talked to after the verdict said Shumate's conviction was irrelevant to their dealings with children. One teacher told me, "We do our best to keep our hands off children because we know that the law will not protect us." Another teacher said, "I just think it's really sad because these kids need a lot of love, and we unfortunately can't give it to them the way that a parent can because of our society and what's happened in the past. I know I've made up my mind because I would never want to be convicted of anything like that." On back-to-school night this year, the teacher said, "we told the parents that their children need to be responsible for buttoning their own pants and taking care of themselves. We cannot do it because of the case. ... Everyone's aware of that case, and we don't want anything to happen with our jobs."

The assertion that hugging has anything to do with Shumate's conviction enrages Jill Hiatt, who has prosecuted six teachers in her 12-year career with the district attorney's office. "That's sad, crazy, crazy," she said, shaking her head. "Why should they change what they're doing? Teachers need to be physical with children. They need to hug them. They need to pat them on the shoulder. They need to touch them on the head. That's light-years away from what he's convicted of doing."

Underlying the question of why Shumate's colleagues are afraid to hug their students, though, is a more fundamental one: Why do so many believe he is innocent? Why is Shumate's guilt still a matter of doubt for so many local residents? Usually, people accept jury verdicts--unanimous decisions by a dozen disinterested people. In newspapers, we treat such verdicts as fact, no longer referring to alleged deeds or what people are accused of doing but rather to what they have done. Had Shumate been convicted of burglary, embezzlement, or assault, would so many have questioned the legitimacy of the prosecution? Clearly, the amorphous issue of intent coupled with the publicity surrounding a number of cases based on false accusation cast a shadow of doubt on all such cases. Yet, there must be more to it. I believe the reasons have much to do with the fact that the acts occurred at school and, in particular, at a Pleasanton school.

If the probation report is accurate, it took at least five separate reports about Shumate to two principals before any school official decided to notify the authorities. Some argue that these officials broke the law each time they failed to report the allegations. Why would they put themselves in such jeopardy? (Because of the pending civil suit, school administrators won't speak publicly about the case.) Why did the teacher who was told about the incident on the school bus not report it? Why did so many of Shumate's colleagues leap to his defense? And why do so many still support him? But most of all, why are so many teachers more willing to withhold their affection from their students than believe there was a sick man in their midst?

Although it has been more than two years since I was last in a classroom, I still think of myself as a teacher and of teachers as colleagues, people committed to the interests of children. And while I taught high school, not elementary school, I know that the issue of touching students is a complicated one. Even with older children, there are times when words aren't enough, when what's needed is a pat on the shoulder or back, or even, on occasion, a hug. It discourages me to hear educators suggest a connection between acts so necessary and supportive and ones so foul and damaging. It's sad to think that young children might lose out on affection because of the misdeeds of a few gone wrong.

Yet, several obvious reasons can help explain how the Pleasanton teachers have responded. We tend to believe that we are good judges of character, especially of those we believe we know well. We imagine child molesters, like other deviants, to be dramatically different from ourselves--unkempt, ugly, repulsive. Logic, however, suggests that such people would have little success attracting children. Molesters are able to satisfy their needs because they are appealing people--the sort with whom you would entrust your children.

A second reason has to do with ego: If the colleague I shared a classroom with molested his students, then what does that say about me? What did I close my eyes to? What signs from my students did I miss? (In fact, one boy in Shumate's class wore three pairs of pants at the same time and a tight belt; a girl wouldn't wear a dress.) Parents, too, might say to themselves: If I sent off my child each day into the care of a molester, then I failed in my duty to protect that child. We tend to shelter ourselves from such cruel conclusions; it's why we weave intricate webs of self-deception around an alcoholic partner or a drug-abusing child. "Parents didn't want to talk to kids because they didn't want to think they'd let this happen," prosecutor Hiatt told me. "If you admit that this was going on, it becomes very frightening. If you can be that close to it, and you don't know it or acknowledge it, boy, that's very threatening." Some parents, Hiatt reminded me, went out of their way to get their child into Shumate's class. "What have you done?" she asks. "You've put him in harm's way."

"The entire case of supporting Neil Shumate in the community and in the schools is replete with denial," Pleasanton Police Chief Bill Eastman told me recently. To disbelieve the children, he said, requires believing in a conspiracy involving the school district, parents, police, prosecutors, the jury, the judge, and the probation investigator. Yet denial, he continued, is "a very normal reaction. We don't want to believe it." A parent would rather disbelieve his or her own child than believe the worst, he said. "I can understand how a parent would dismiss something like this."

Eastman is less forgiving of teachers. "Let's cut through some crap," he said. "What you're dealing with in the schools is the teachers' union. There's a whole lot of union-mentality denial: 'We've got to stick together; it could be us tomorrow.' "

Hiatt has a different take. Asked why so many in the community do not see Shumate the same way she does, the prosecutor rises from her desk and walks over to her office window. She gazes out at the Oakland skyline for a moment and then begins to pace, as if speaking to a jury. "People see what they expect to see," she says. "That's what magic is all about; it's illusion." She recalls a photograph of Shumate sitting with his class and says that while you can't see his hands, you trust him. "You've got to remember," she says, "we're not talking about rape and pillage here, we're talking about fondling."

There is perhaps another reason, though, why so many parents and teachers lined up against the testimony of nine young children. Pleasanton is a small, homogeneous, upper-middle-class community where people move to get away from the things that scare them. Perhaps parents in a bigger, more diverse city would not be so quick to assume the schools have youngsters' best interests at heart--or to doubt children who say their teacher has touched them in ways that made them feel funny. "People in Pleasanton believe that the schools are entirely devoted to the best interests of their child," Hiatt says, "and maybe in a less affluent community that wouldn't be true. This man was reported years and years ago, and it never made any difference." Indeed, between 1987 and 1994, two principals, a teacher, and a cop all decided that they knew Shumate well enough to know that he wasn't the type to molest children. A jury of their peers says they were wrong.

A year has now passed since Neil Shumate's trial. Few people talk about it these days unless asked. Shumate himself is in San Quentin, the state prison across the bay to the north. The community has calmed, if not forgotten. "There's a sense of 'Let's put it behind us,"' says one mother who testified for the prosecution. "[People] are trying to be a little bit more mature and let everybody heal. It's slowly ebbing." And slowly, she adds, the divisions are also slipping away; different families are no longer divided into camps, and children's social lives are getting back to normal. For the victims' parents, though, their relationships with the school is forever changed. "The innocence is gone," the mother says, "the innocence and having faith in the administration."

The real damage, though, has nothing to do with schools or teachers. It is the damage done to the young children who were violated by someone their parents told them they could trust.

Standing by the window in her office, Jill Hiatt mentions the name of one of the victims. The girl, she says, "will never be right. The first time that a boyfriend or a husband touches her in the same way she was touched, and something snaps ..." She pauses. "There is a kernel of ugliness that that man deposited with these children that will live with them for the rest of their lives. That will never go away."

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