Presumed Guilty

Accused of improperly touching one of his students, Connecticut music teacher Roderick Crochiere was fired from his job for ‘moral misconduct.’ Now, after a journey through hell, Crochiere is fighting back.
By Winifred Conkling — May 01, 1991 21 min read

IT WAS EARLY JUNE, THE TIME OF YEAR when afternoons stretch into evenings and students mark time until the end of the school year. In a small suburban community in northern Connecticut, the last school bus pulled away from the front of Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary, a 20-room, red-brick school surrounded on three sides by a backdrop of thick green trees and rolling hills.

Inside the music room, Roderick Crochiere finished up some paperwork and walked acros s the hall to the front office to check his mailbox. As Crochiere entered the room, Principal Dennis Balsewicz stepped out of his office. Balsewicz stared at Crochiere and then asked him to follow him into his office and close the door.

“I have received a complaint from a parent,” Balse-wicz said, handing Crochiere a letter dated June 3, 1987, that had been written by one of Crochiere’s students, 12-year-old Alexis (not her real name), and her mother. It read:

We are registering the following complaint in reference to Mr. [Roderick] Crochiere’s behavior. Approximately two months ago, during clarinet lessons, Mr. Crochiere began tapping his pencil on Alexis’ thigh, extremely high up. He then proceeded to place his hand on her thigh / crotch area until Alexis, who was playing her clarinet, stopped and looked at him. She then looked back at her music and Mr. Crochiere said something like, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have put my hand there.” We feel that these are justifiable complaints and request that the Board of Education look into this matter.

Crochiere was baffled after reading the letter. He says he wasn’t nervous because he had nothing to hide.

“There are no grounds for these charges,” Crochiere explained to the principal. “They are totally unfounded.”

His protestations went unheeded. Without further discussion, the principal told Crochiere that, in accordance with instructions from the superintendent, he was not to report to work until further notice. The entire conversation took less than 10 minutes.

When word of Crochiere’s suspension spread through the community, a number of the teacher’s former students were outraged. Crochiere had spent most of his career as a music teacher at one of the local high schools. In fact, he had earned a reputation as a loyal and dedicated band leader during the 20 years he taught instrumental music, jazz band, and marching band at Enrico Fermi High School in Enfield, Conn., a middle-class community just north of Hartford.

Crochiere’s band activities set the tempo for his entire life. He went to nearly 50 weekend performances a year and traveled with the band to competitions across the United States and Canada. He stayed after school for rehearsals three times a week, and he and his wife often took students with them to Hartford Jazz Society performances and university music recitals. Former band members--both female and male--said that they trusted him and considered him “a father figure.’'

Even his most virulent critics credit Crochiere with having passion for music. In a way, Crochiere seems to be a man more comfortable with music than words. When discussing the charges brought against him, Crochiere willingly answers all questions, but he sometimes pauses midsentence to collect his thoughts and search for the right words to express himself. He doesn’t seem to be hiding anything, but rather to be struggling to find the same kind of exactitude in language that he finds in music.

Crochiere’s desire for precision created problems with some students, especially those only marginally interested in music. He was considered by his students to be a demanding teacher, one with little patience for, or tolerance of, students who failed to practice their instruments. If a student didn’t play a part properly, Crochiere had the student repeat the piece again and again until it was mastered. When asked if his students thought he was too strict, Crochiere responds, “It wasn’t that I was too strict, it was that some students wouldn’t take the music seriously enough.’'

Crochiere also had trouble with the school administration. When Alexis’ complaint reached the office of Louis Mager, superintendent of the Enfield Public Schools, Crochiere’s name was already a familiar one. In October 1986, Mager had reprimanded Crochiere for the way he had chastised a female marching band student.

That incident occurred at a rehearsal two weeks before an important band competition. During the routine, the band members were to bend at the waist in formation. On signal, they were to snap to attention and begin marching. The problem involved a girl who played a lower brass instrument known as a mellophone, which is one of several instruments containing a part known as a water key or “cork.’' When the girl was bent over, she held the instrument between her knees. During practice, the girl repeatedly missed the cue to begin the marching exercise; each time she missed the start, she threw off the timing of the entire 60-member band. Crochiere became irritated at the girl, and he snapped at her: “Would you please take that cork out from between your legs?’'

The girl didn’t take offense at the comment, but another student reported it to the principal. When asked about the remark, Crochiere admitted making the statement but denied any sexual intent. The administration issued a written reprimand: “Your behavior did not meet the standards of conduct expected of Enfield Public School teachers. It showed poor judgment, was disrespectful, and demeaning.’'

At a meeting to discuss the incident, the principal accused Crochiere of having a drinking problem. Crochiere became livid. He denied having any problem with alcohol--and he still maintains that the charge was unfounded. “I didn’t have a problem,’' he says. “I never drank at school. I never drank on the job.’' Nonetheless, he voluntarily agreed to check into a self-help program to protect his job. He says he has not had a drink since the date of the accusation. Crochiere realized a verbal battle with the principal would be fruitless, so he simply told the administrator he wanted a medical leave of absence for treatment--and a transfer to another school.

Crochiere completed a substance-abuse program at Blue Hills Clinic in Bloomfield, Conn., and was reassigned to two elementary schools. On Feb. 2, 1987, he started teaching at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary, where he met Alexis.

Crochiere had been accustomed to dealing with high school students, so some of the younger students found him more demanding than the typical elementary music teacher. Crochiere was both short-tempered and patient; he had no time for foolishness, but he was always able to find time to assist students who needed extra help. His appearance was that of a bulldog: short, stocky, and solid. His voice was deep and rough, conditioned by years of barking out commands to an entire platoon of marching band members.

When Crochiere took over Alexis’ music class, he noted her lack of interest and tried to get her involved in the music program. But she wasn’t interested. The 6th grader was scheduled to take music lessons for 35 minutes on Monday mornings, but she missed almost half the classes, either because she left her instrument at home or because she hid in the girls’ bathroom until her lesson was over. Two months after she stopped going to class, Crochiere spotted Alexis in the hallway at school and asked her to perform in a year-end recital.

That night, Alexis’ mother found her sobbing in her room before bed. She asked what was wrong, and Alexis told her that Crochiere “made her feel very uncomfortable in class.’'

“What did he do?’' Alexis’ mother asked.

Alexis told her mother that Crochiere had touched her during a clarinet lesson. She had recently seen a film at school on sexual abuse, and she told her mother Crochiere was guilty of a “bad touch.”

The following day, Alexis’ mother complained to the school principal. The day after that, Alexis and her mother submitted a written statement. Two days later, they composed a more detailed account of the alleged incident:

While I was in music class on Monday, Mr. Crochiere told me to come over and sit next to him. He sat on the piano bench with either leg on each side. I pulled a chair up next to the piano bench and sat down. He put his hand on my shoulder near my chest. And also tapped a pencil on my knee and eventually went up higher. He also put his hand on my inner thigh, near my crotch area, for about 15 seconds.

The school social worker for the Enfield Public Schools spoke to Alexis and then prepared a report. She concluded that Alexis had presented an accurate, consistent report of the incident without prompting from adults. Alexis also told the social worker she had not attended music class since the incident occurred.

The principal immediately contacted the superintendent, who decided that Crochiere was not to report to work until further notice. The administration began an investigation. On June 8, 1987, Superintendent Mager told Crochiere to resign or face termination proceedings.

CROCHIERE INSISTED HE WAS INNOCENT. He accepted representation from a union attorney and expected to be cleared on all charges. “It was unconscionable that there would even be a case against me,” Crochiere says. “I was never worried or afraid. I knew that I was innocent.’'

Crochiere’s innocence was less evident to his colleagues, few of whom offered any support or encouragement. One exception was Terry Marek, a Spanish teacher at Enrico Fermi High School who also served as adviser for majorettes and the color guard. “I never believed he was guilty,’' Marek says, “and I probably spent more time with him than any other teacher.’'

The attorney appointed by the union to represent Crochiere didn’t know him before the case was filed, but, the music teacher contends, he behaved as though he assumed Crochiere were guilty. Crochiere claims that his attorney filed all the necessary paperwork but failed to conduct a thorough investigation by interviewing other students and teachers. “I felt as though he thought there was something to the charges,’' Crochiere says. “But I figured he knew what he was doing.’' (Crochiere has filed a lawsuit against this attorney, charging that his representation was inadequate. The attorney refused to comment for this article because of the pending litigation.)

During the termination hearing, Crochiere’s attorney argued that Alexis had been a poor music student and that she had concocted the charges as an excuse to avoid taking clarinet lessons and playing in the final recital. He claimed that Alexis, who received As and Bs in her other classes, knew that her attendance problems and poor performance would result in a low grade in music.

Though Crochiere claimed--and attendance records confirmed--that Alexis missed almost half her music classes in the two months before the alleged incident, the administration argued that Alexis’ problems in music class started after, and as a result of, the alleged abuse.

At the hearing, Crochiere acknowledged touching Alexis--as well as all his other students--but he said the touch involved using a pencil, a ruler, or his finger to tap the beat of the music on the edge of the piano or on the student’s leg. Any touch, he insisted, was strictly instructional.

“The feeling of the beat, it’s critical,’' Crochiere testified at the termination hearing. “That is the major element of music. Without rhythm, you don’t have a heartbeat; without a heartbeat, you don’t have music.’'

In an attempt to undermine his character, Crochiere’s accusers brought up the issue of the cork remark. Again, Crochiere admitted making the comment and acknowledged that it was inappropriate, but he denied that his words carried any sexual intent or innuendo. “I would eat the words if I could,’' testified Crochiere, who said the remark had been misinterpreted. Reflecting on the hearing, Crochiere says, “The cork comment was a smoke-screen issue. They just wanted to make me out as a moral degenerate.’'

The issue of Crochiere’s alleged alcohol problem also resurfaced, but the hearing officer discounted it, concluding that “the administration pressured him to enter [the alcohol program] and under the circumstances he had little choice. There was no other reliable evidence in the record to show [Crochiere] had serious problems with alcohol.’'

Nonetheless, on Oct. 22, 1987, the hearing officer found Crochiere guilty of moral misconduct. Although the school district failed to provide specific evidence of Crochiere’s guilt, the hearing officer based his decision on the circumstantial evidence since the burden of proof in such cases is the preponderance of evidence, not reasonable doubt. Crochiere was officially fired.

The hearing officer based his ruling on what he considered to be a significant change in Crochiere’s behavior toward Alexis during the several months he worked with her. In February, when Crochiere was first transferred to the school, he put forth great effort to involve Alexis in class. On his first day at school, he noted that Alexis’ clarinet needed some repair work, so he called her mother at home. With her permission, he took the instrument to a licensed repair shop in another community and waited while the work was done.

Alexis didn’t respond to Crochiere’s efforts to involve her in class. In mid-March, he again called Alexis’ mother to report that the girl was repeatedly missing music class. He told the girl’s mother that he was planning to take the class on a field trip and invited her along as a chaperone, explaining that this might increase her daughter’s interest in music. Alexis and her mother went on the trip, but Alexis continued to skip class.

For the next couple of months, Alexis completely avoided Crochiere and clarinet class. According to his testimony, the next time Crochiere saw Alexis was June 1, when he invited her to participate in the recital.

The hearing officer accepted that Crochiere had been a concerned, responsible teacher during February and March. But why the lapse in interest after that? Crochiere explained that he thought he had done all he could to involve Alexis in class and that he would rather spend his energy on students who had an interest in music. Unconvinced, the officer concluded that Crochiere’s failure to continue calling Alexis’ mother in April and May proved his guilt: Crochiere ignored Alexis, the officer decided, because his “improper conduct was more likely to come to light’’ if she returned to class.

THE DECISION DEVASTATED CROCHIERE. “I lived for the band,’' says the 62-year-old former teacher during an interview at his attorney’s office. Throughout the interview, Crochiere chain-smokes Winston cigarettes, nervously tapping ashes into the bottom of the white foam coffee cup he uses as an ashtray. Crochiere had quit smoking for about 10 years, but he lit up again after he lost his job. “I loved my job,’' he says. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have spent so much time at it.’'

In the months following his termination, Crochiere’s mental health began to deteriorate. On an almost daily basis, he woke up to newspaper accounts of his case, many with headlines such as “Report Accuses Fired Teacher Of Fondling.’' In the fall of 1987, nearly 60 articles were written about his case in the local and regional press.

Crochiere’s 51-year-old wife, Joan, a music teacher in a nearby school system, watched as her husband grew tired and nervous. He wouldn’t eat or sleep and lost 44 pounds.

Crochiere became agitated and violent, prone to angry outbursts, including throwing things. He went on buying sprees, running up a $3,800 credit-card bill, buying a $27,000 Jeep and a $30,000 customized van. He bought a $1,000 car phone, assuming that it would help his new business as a vacuum cleaner salesman. He bought a color computer printer--but he didn’t have a computer. He had a vision--he saw a cross in the sky--and he knew it was a sign that he was going to become a millionaire. “I didn’t notice anything was wrong,’' Crochiere says. “I was having a grand time.’'

On Christmas Eve 1987, family members became concerned because Crochiere was wearing beads and a huge cross that made him look “like a 60-year-old hippy.’' Crochiere’s wife and other family members decided to have him institutionalized. They called the police; Crochiere was handcuffed, strapped to a stretcher, and taken to the emergency room of Hartford Hospital. “I was totally helpless,’' Crochiere recalls. “My family stuck by me. I appreciate what they did for me, but, at the time, I was angry, and I was confused.’'

The following day, Crochiere was moved to the Institute of Living, a psychiatric hospital in Hartford. According to a Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory taken on Jan. 5, 1988, he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and a possible bipolar depressive. He began taking Lithium and several other tranquilizers and anti-psychotic medications. But his doctor found no evidence of sexual disorder, perversion, misconduct, or indiscretion.

Robert Swords, one of the physicians treating Crochiere, later testified that Crochiere’s work as a teacher was “a very important dedication. He felt a real calling to that kind of work, to work teaching students music.’' Swords testified that Crochiere lost more than a job. “It was the loss of his life’s work, his mission in life,’' he said. “Crochiere felt [the accusations] were totally untrue, totally false; he was literally beside himself, trying to explain how he could be charged with something like that.’'

On Feb. 7, 1988, Crochiere was discharged from the hospital. He immediately sought help from Leon Rosenblatt, a private attorney specializing in labor law.

IN SEPTEMBER 1988, THE CONNECTICUT Board of Education initiated license revocation hearings to decide if Crochiere was fit to teach. Superintendent Mager had requested that the board revoke Crochiere’s license because he “inappropriately touched...a female student attending an elementary school in Enfield.’'

The tone and tenor of this hearing was substantially different from the previous one, largely due to Rosenblatt’s efforts. Rosenblatt went to lengths to establish Crochiere’s credibility. In preparation for the hearing, Crochiere took--and passed--a three-hour polygraph test. When asked, “For your own sexual gratification did you ever touch Alexis near her crotch?’' Crochiere responded “No,’' and his breathing, blood pressure, and galvanic skin response all showed that he was telling the truth.

Rosenblatt also interviewed other students in the music class, those students’ parents, and other teachers. He brought in expert witnesses in child psychology and music teaching.

Knowing that the outcome of the previous hearing turned on Crochiere’s behavior on certain dates, Rosenblatt revisited the issue of the times and dates of Crochiere’s contact with Alexis’ mother. In this hearing, Crochiere testified that Alexis had attended class and he had contacted Alexis’ mother after the date of the alleged incident. Alexis herself testified that she attended class two or three times after the incident and that Crochiere continued to try to get her to class. She also testified that he called her mother after the date of the alleged incident.

Crochiere’s attorney said, “Are you sure of that?’'

“Yes, I am,’' she said.

“Why are you sure of that?’'

“Because I know then I was not taking my instrument to school. I did not want to go to class, and I didn’t want to see him, and I avoided him. That’s why he made the phone call.’'

Evidence presented in the earlier hearing showed Alexis as a good music student. But, at this hearing, it was shown that Alexis had been a poor music student long before Crochiere arrived at the elementary school. Testimony revealed that she had completed only seven pages in a 32-page music book after studying more than a year with her other music teacher. In a year-end evaluation, the other teacher wrote that Alexis was “absent or without her instrument for almost half the classes taught this year.’'

More importantly, in this hearing, Rosenblatt pressed for details on the nature and description of the touch itself. Alexis’ testimony about the touching incident changed significantly, in part because she was asked specific questions about the character and circumstances of the touch. When pressed for details, Alexis’ testimony for the first time revealed that Crochiere often had a number of students sit next to the piano while he helped them sound out the music. With one hand, he played the piano; with the other, he tapped out the beat on the edge of the piano or the student’s knee.

Alexis explained that on the day Crochiere touched her, she had lost her place in the music and asked for help reading a note. Crochiere, who has been legally blind in his right eye since birth, had to lean over to see the notes on Alexis’ music stand. According to Alexis’ testimony, Crochiere stopped tapping her knee, placed his hand on her leg, and leaned on her while straining to read the music. He then said, “I’m sorry. My hand should not have been there.’' Alexis accepted the apology and continued in her lesson. Alexis said that Crochiere was frustrated with her for failing to play the proper note. Finally, Alexis testified, Crochiere said, “Forget it. Let’s go do a couple of other notes.’'

Gone from the account was the tone of deliberateness, the implication that the incident was done with lascivious intent. The touch Alexis described was accidental, in part brought on by the fact that the teacher was trying to play the piano, keep the beat, watch the girl’s playing, and follow her music at the same time. The touch that had been characterized in the previous hearing and in the press as “fondling’’ and “caressing’’ was now being described as “leaning.’'

Other testimony established that Alexis’ mother prompted her with words like “panty line,’' “crotch,’' and “inner thigh,’' and that she insisted that Alexis not quit the clarinet lessons she had started unless she had a good reason. A psychiatrist called by Crochiere’s attorney testified that Alexis used the allegation of sexual abuse to convince her mother to let her stop taking clarinet lessons. He concluded that Alexis “had no other way to placate the mother and give the mother an objective good reason for abandoning the clarinet.’'

Other teachers were called to testify about the role of touch in teaching music. Alexis’ former music teacher, Lawrence Climan, said that the case had changed the way he taught music. He testified that, “I have learned over the past several years that many of the things that I thought were perfectly natural to do with a child are becoming totally unnatural and dangerous, and I have been extremely careful.’'

The testimony was persuasive. On Jan. 17, 1989, the Connecticut Board of Education voted 9-0 not to revoke Crochiere’s license.

FROM THE DATE OF THE INITIAL ACCUSAtion to the date of the final ruling of the board of education, Crochiere went from villain to victim. Though the state refused to revoke his license, Crochiere’s mental problems have prevented him from holding down a full-time job because he lacks the stamina required to work a full day and has trouble following a rigid schedule.

When he was released from the hospital, he spent time collecting bottles on the side of the road; he made $186. In August, he took a part-time job at an auto parts store, making $6.68 an hour. He continues to take Lithium and other prescription drugs--and his doctors tell him he probably will have to do so for the rest of his life.

On Sept. 21, 1988, he filed for worker’s compensation, arguing that the false accusation resulted in stress and a nervous breakdown. He asked for $18,671 to cover his medical bills, as well as money to cover his temporary total disability and permanent partial disability at an amount equal to his wages at the time of the incident: $610 a week.

After yet another hearing, in June 1990, the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Commission ruled in Crochiere’s favor. The commission concluded that there was “no credible evidence’’ that Crochiere “touched any student in a sexual or abusive manner, or for any reason other than instructional purposes’’ and ordered the Enfield School Board to pay at least $50,000 in back pay. (The school district has appealed the decision; that case is pending.)

In the ruling, compensation commissioner A. Paul Berte characterized Crochiere as “a strict teacher who was an authoritative figure and took a great deal of pride in his work. [He] had been a music teacher all his working life, and the profession meant a great deal to him. He cared a lot about his students and would use his personal time to assist his students if they needed help. He had the reputation of being a tough but fair teacher.’'

In May 1990, Crochiere filed suit against Alexis, her parents, the Enfield Teachers Association, the Connecticut Education Association, and the union attorney who, he claims, failed to adequately represent him at his termination hearing. Crochiere alleges that Alexis and her parents intentionally defamed him and inflicted emotional stress. (Repeated attempts to contact Alexis and her parents through their lawyer were unsuccessful; the other parties named in the lawsuit refused to comment since the case is in progress.)

Even if he wins the case, Crochiere says he cannot be fully vindicated. “My life is not one of desperation; it is one of unfulfillment,’' he says. “No one can take away the good I’ve done in my life, the difference I’ve made in some students’ lives. But I’m retired now, and I can’t go back.’'

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Presumed Guilty