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Published in Print: December 9, 1998, as Living Through a Teacher's Nightmare: False Accusation

Living Through a Teacher's Nightmare: False Accusation

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For nine months that felt like forever, Michael Gallagher and his family had prayed for this moment. And yet when it came, all they could do was cry.

It was the evening of Oct. 21, and his lawyer had phoned a few hours earlier asking if he could drop by the 5th grade teacher's house to discuss something. Meetings like this had become all too familiar since his arrest in January on charges that he had raped a 10-year-old student 13 years earlier.

"He came in and said, 'Get your calendar and a pencil,' " the 60-year-old educator recalled in a recent interview in this quiet, suburban community north of Philadelphia. " I want you to put in the date of your victory party.' "

The diminutive, gray-haired teacher dissolved into tears of relief. And within days, the county district attorney had made it official. Before a phalanx of television cameras, the prosecutor announced that Mr. Gallagher had been falsely accused and that he was dropping all charges.

Instead of a possible prison sentence, the 30-year veteran teacher could suddenly look forward to a retirement spent traveling with his wife and visiting his grandchild. And authorities are considering filing criminal charges against his accuser, 23-year-old Margaret Powell of Cheltenham, Pa., for false reporting.

Fortunately, Mr. Gallagher's ordeal--being publicly accused of sex crimes by a student whose account is later discredited--is relatively rare.

While it is not uncommon for cases of alleged staff-on-student abuse to end in acquittal or dropped charges--sometimes because the alleged victims either recant or refuse to cooperate--instances of school employees actually being arrested for crimes that authorities later deem fictitious are few and far between.

Problem's Extent Unclear

Just as no one knows how many staff members actually abuse students sexually, it is impossible to say with certainty how often students wrongly accuse them of doing so.

It is clear that few of these incidents wind up in the news. If school or law-enforcement authorities determine claims to be unfounded, there is a strong likelihood that they may never become public.

"We don't have a complete picture," said Lynn A. Ohman, the director of member advocacy for the 2.4 million-member National Education Association. "We don't know how many are falsely accused."

Despite this uncertainty, many educators perceive wrongful allegations to be a pervasive problem that poses serious risks. Citing this worry, school administrators often say they tread cautiously when students come forward.

"Unfortunately, when you're in the public eye, an accusation is as good as guilt," said Gary Marx, a spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Alexandria, Va. "So we have to be careful not to blow the whistle too quickly."

But some experts in schoolhouse sexual harassment believe that the threat of wrongful charges has been blown out of proportion.

"False accusations hardly ever happen, yet children are sexually abused much more than you would ever believe," said Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational administration at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., who has studied staff-on-student sexual harassment. "The mythology out there is a lot bigger than the reality."

A 'Disservice' to Victims

Regardless of their prevalence, it is clear that false allegations erode the credibility of students with genuine claims against educators, as the well-publicized case in Abington illustrates.

"Margaret Powell did a disservice to real rape victims," Mr. Gallagher said, voicing a view that prosecutors share.

Mary C. Fittipaldi, the Montgomery County, Pa., assistant district attorney who handled Mr. Gallagher's case, said authorities initially were highly impressed with Ms. Powell's account. The woman, then a college student in Massachusetts, alleged that Mr. Gallagher had repeatedly assaulted her when she was his pupil at the Willow Hill Elementary School during the 1985-86 school year.

"She was by far one of the most believable people I've ever met," Ms. Fittipaldi recalled. "That's what's so scary about it."

But over time, inconsistencies emerged in her accounts, and she acknowledged lying about certain details, Ms. Fittipaldi said. Attempts by Education Week to reach Ms. Powell were unsuccessful.

The turning point came when Mr. Gallagher furnished prosecutors with an anonymous letter sent to district officials in 1993 and signed by "an 18-year-old female survivor."

Citing the teacher by name, the letter stated, "Within the last two years, I have recovered multiple memories of sexual molestation that I believe occurred [sic] during my 1985-86 placement in his class."

Ms. Fittipaldi said authorities had repeatedly asked Ms. Powell if her recollections were the result of therapy designed to recover repressed memories, and she had said they were not. The prosecutor said that her office does not take cases that rely on such memories because of controversy over their reliability.

"Obviously, if I had had that information prior to the arrest, we wouldn't have had the arrest," she said.

Prosecutors then gave Ms. Powell a lie-detector test, which they said she failed. Ms. Fittipaldi declined to speculate on what might have motivated Ms. Powell, but said the county sex-crimes unit, which she oversees, feels betrayed. "We were all used by her," the prosecutor said.

'No Future'

At the Overlook Elementary School, where Mr. Gallagher taught until his arrest, Principal Teresa A. Montanaro said educators feel "disillusioned" that authorities brought a case that ultimately had no merit.

"When we read in the newspaper that they regret the whole incident, that doesn't quite do justice to the insult and injury that was suffered by Mr. Gallagher and his family," she said.

Ms. Montanaro said the affair has also made staff members at the 390-student, K-6 school feel vulnerable. "Each child brings with them their own individual baggage, and you don't know where you as a teacher fit into that," she said.

Few have felt that vulnerability more acutely than Mr. Gallagher. For all his relief, he has lived through an educator's nightmare--one filled with humiliation, financial worries, and fear of going to prison.

"I could never get happy," he said. "There was just no future."

Now both he and his wife, Betty, take solace in the strong community support they received, including a $10,000 gift from one friend, bags of groceries from others, and frequent words of encouragement. Looking back, he said he wouldn't have made it without "my faith, my family, and my friends."

The district has reimbursed him for back pay and offered to reinstate him. Instead, he will take a medical leave for the rest of the school year and then retire.

One way he'll keep busy is by lobbying for a tougher state law against falsely reporting a crime. Shortly after he was cleared, he appeared with state Rep. Ellen M. Bard, a Montgomery County Republican, as she announced her intention to introduce legislation that would upgrade such an offense to a felony.

"I realize that there's such a thing as child molestation," the teacher said. "But you've got to protect the teachers too."

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Page 19

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