Teacher's Advocacy of Pedophilia Raises Legal Questions

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Until recently, Peter Melzer was known in the Bronx High School of Science in New York City as a solid teacher with a clean record.

Outside the school, however, he had another role--as a leading member of the North American Man/Boy Love Association, an organization that endorses sex between adult and preteen or adolescent males.

Although Mr. Melzer, 53, has never been accused of any misconduct in three decades of teaching in the city's public schools, district officials are now seeking to dismiss the tenured teacher based on what he advocates.

Analysts say the case has raised knotty questions in the fields of education, psychology, and law.

Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines has already removed Mr. Melzer from the classroom and, with the approval of the school board, undertaken an administrative process to terminate the teacher's employment.

"Though no evidence of misconduct on the job has been presented, Mr. Melzer's advocacy and promotion of illegal activities makes him unfit to serve as a classroom role model,'' Mr. Cortines said in September, when he announced that he would seek Mr. Melzer's dismissal.

First Amendment Questions

The local teachers' union, however, has stepped in to protect Mr. Melzer's due-process rights, and civil libertarians are fighting his dismissal as a violation of the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and freedom of association.

"They cannot take job action against him because of unrelated speech and association activities,'' said Eugene B. Nathanson, Mr. Melzer's lawyer.

After Mr. Cortines's announcement, Mr. Melzer, who had been on a one-year sabbatical leave, was not allowed to return to the school. Instead, he was assigned to a non-teaching job at a district office, where he has been reviewing a science curriculum.

The district is seeking Mr. Melzer's dismissal under a state law that provides for the termination of teachers for neglect of duty, incapacity to teach, and immoral conduct, among other reasons. Its complaint charges that his activities in NAMBLA amount to immoral conduct that has disrupted education and compromised his ability to perform his duties.

Mr. Melzer, who opted to have his case settled in binding arbitration, is asking to be allowed back into the classroom.

"His interest is in teaching,'' Mr. Nathanson said. "He has been a dedicated teacher for 31 years, and he wants to keep teaching and establish his right to be a teacher.''

'A Clear Threat'

New York City school officials first learned of Mr. Melzer's involvement in NAMBLA in 1984. The officials interviewed the teacher, but took no action against him.

Edward F. Stancik, the system's special commissioner of investigation, reopened the case in 1992 after reviewing files that had belonged to the district's defunct office of inspector general. (See Education Week, Sept. 29, 1993.)

Last March, before Mr. Stancik could release his findings, Mr. Melzer's involvement in NAMBLA was publicized in a three-part news report by a local television station.

Vincent G. Galasso, the principal of Bronx High, said parents responded to the report by questioning Mr. Melzer's fitness to teach. The parent association urged Mr. Melzer's dismissal and threatened to boycott his classes.

Some parents, students, and teachers came to Mr. Melzer's defense, however. Articles in the student newspaper praised him as a teacher and said he posed no threat to students.

Mr. Stancik's report, released in September, concludes otherwise. Extensively detailing Mr. Melzer's involvement as a member of NAMBLA and an editor of its newsletter, it asserts he represents "a clear threat'' to his education environment.

While conceding he had no evidence that Mr. Melzer "has ever overtly acted in an inappropriate manner with his students,'' the special commissioner nonetheless maintained that Mr. Melzer's attraction to children and promotion of pedophilia through NAMBLA "pose substantial risks to students' welfare.''

The special commissioner said Mr. Melzer had told an undercover police officer of having sex with at least one boy while attending an educational conference in the Philippines in 1983.

Mr. Stancik also questioned whether Mr. Melzer would fulfill his responsibility to alert authorities if he learns of students being sexually abused.

Moreover, the special commissioner said, Mr. Melzer's presence at the school disrupts education and could cause parents to remove their children from his classes.

The special commissioner recommended severe disciplinary action against Mr. Melzer and said he should at a minimum be barred from unsupervised contact with students.

Due Process Emphasized

Sandra Feldman, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, initially agreed with the special commissioner's recommendations, saying, "My general feeling is that pedophiles don't belong in the classroom.''

The U.F.T. has since come to Mr. Melzer's defense, however, by providing for lawyers from the New York State United Teachers to represent him during the current disciplinary proceedings.

"The man has the right to due process--not necessarily the right to continue to teach, but the right to due process,'' said Linda A. Rosenblatt, a spokeswoman for NYSUT.

Mr. Nathanson said Mr. Melzer has not talked to teachers or students about pedophilia and, therefore, cannot be accused of disrupting education. The lawyer said that he would file suit, most likely in federal court, if the teacher is disciplined and that he has the backing of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"If he was in the classroom advocating sex between adults and children, or if he was hitting on children inside or outside the school, those would be grounds to question his fitness to teach,'' said Laura J. Murray, the legislative director of the N.Y.C.L.U.

But, "as long as Mr. Melzer sets limits on himself--all he is doing is speaking a belief--he has not crossed the line into conduct, and he is walking on the protected side of the First Amendment,'' Ms. Murray said.

Anne Cohn Donnelly, the executive director of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, asserted that Mr. Melzer should be removed from the classroom because the behavior he advocates is illegal and has been shown to be "very injurious to the health and well-being of the very people he is teaching."

Orientation or Action

But, while they agreed that pedophilia can be extremely harmful to children, several psychological experts said they were hesitant to call for the dismissal of a teacher who appears willing to control his sexual behavior in order to avoid breaking the law.

"Just because this man advocates that there be sexual contact between men and boys does not necessarily mean that he will act on it," said Robert A. Prentky, the clinical director of the Joseph J. Peters Institute in Philadelphia.

If "there is no evidence that he is a predator and he would take advantage of children under his care, he should retain his position as a teacher,'' said A. Nicholas Groth, the director of Forensic Mental Health Associates in Orlando, Fla.

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