At One California School, a 'Never-Ending Nightmare'
During a quarter-century career in the Los Angeles County schools, Jeffrey Warschaw has worked with inner-city gang members, taught children with severe emotional problems, and seen students charged with murder.
But none of that prepared the 48-year-old middle school principal for the ordeal that began one morning in April. Since that day—when allegations surfaced that two employees were having improper sexual contact with 13- and 14-year-old female students—things at Traweek Middle School have never been the same.
"This by far is absolutely the worst thing I have ever gone through," Mr. Warschaw recalled recently in a telephone interview from his office at the school in West Covina, Calif. "It's my never-ending nightmare. It seems like this has gone on forever, and ever, and ever."
If they're fortunate, school administrators may spend their entire careers without ever walking in Mr. Warschaw's shoes. But chances are, they will be forced to deal at some point in their working lives with the problem of sexual abuse of students by a teacher, coach, or some other school employee. When it happens, the impact can be enormous.
Once allegations erupt, school officials on the front lines quickly find their time monopolized by the problem and its myriad ramifications. They must negotiate a decision-making minefield where even one false step can derail their careers, lead to years of litigation, and exacerbate the harm done to victims and employees alike.
"You're in territory you've never been in before," said Claudia J. Karnoski, 41, Mr. Warschaw's assistant principal. "You're just on very scary ground."
'Dying a Thousand Deaths'
Neither Mr. Warschaw nor Ms. Karnoski will soon forget the day they entered that territory. It was April 2, and Mr. Warschaw was home with a nasty case of the flu. So it was left to Ms. Karnoski to handle things when an aide came to the office with two students who were angry and upset.
The girls were among a handful of students that both administrators say they had noticed fraternizing with both a special education aide and a custodian. Since the previous fall, in fact, Mr. Warschaw and Ms. Karnoski say they had repeatedly warned both employees to stop what they saw as unprofessional behavior with certain female students, including inappropriate comments and "overfriendliness."
That morning, after questioning the girls who had come forward and a handful of others, Ms. Karnoski soon realized she was dealing with real trouble. She summoned Mr. Warschaw from his sick bed, and the principal quickly notified the police and top officials of the Covina-Valley Unified School District, who suspended both employees pending an investigation.
By the close of that first day, Mr. Warschaw said, he was "dying a thousand deaths." Almost as bad as his growing suspicion that the allegations might be true, he recalled, was the feeling that he was somehow to blame if they were.
"The reality is you failed to protect your kids," he said. "Even though the superintendent tells you, 'Jeff, these things happen,' there's still that feeling of, 'What could I have done differently?' It's pretty devastating."
In the weeks that followed, the abuse allegations and their repercussions absorbed a staggering amount of the administrators' time and attention. "The stress level of all of that on top of what we go through here daily was extremely difficult," Ms. Karnoski recalled. "It just tripled our work."
Things did not get much easier as time went by. The criminal case against the special education aide was resolved in June, when he pleaded no contest to a single count of having sex with a minor under 16.
But in October, the maintenance worker's case went to trial, a process that forced Mr. Warschaw and Ms. Karnoski to relive the traumatic events of the previous spring.
During the trial, four girls testified that the custodian had molested or exposed himself to them.
Most of the girls had a history of discipline problems at school and had earlier downplayed or denied that the incidents had occurred, facts that the custodian's lawyer used to buttress his argument that they were lying. Such conflicting accounts, experts say, are typical in cases of employee-student sexual misconduct.
In the end, the custodian was found not guilty and is now seeking his job back. In an interview, his lawyer staunchly maintained his innocence and accused school officials of unfairly going after him--a charge they strongly deny.
Despite the rocky road they have traveled, Mr. Warschaw and Ms. Karnoski have gotten high marks from faculty members, central office administrators, and law-enforcement officials for how they handled the cases.
The educators were "100 percent cooperative," provided counselors for students as they were being interviewed, and "documented everything they did prior to calling the police," said Detective Tom Garcia of the West Covina police.
"They did it so well," he added, "that the trauma to the students was low."
Mr. Warschaw said his main goals were to support the girls who were directly affected, keep parents and staff members informed, and avoid having the cases disrupt the school's educational mission. Unflinching support from central-office administrators and a strong relationship with local police made the job easier, he said.
His determination to keep the lines of communication open was also critical. "I made a conscious decision that I was not going to sweep this under the rug," he said. "And it was amazing the support I had from the community."
Staff members at the school said the principal's efforts paid off.
"It was kept under control so that it didn't jeopardize our school or our kids," said Dawn Hoeger, a math and science teacher at the 1,000-student school. "It didn't rise up and become an ugly snake."
Since the cases arose, Ms. Karnoski said she has altered the message she delivers to students during the annual sessions on safety and discipline she holds with them as part of the health and physical education curriculum.
"I talk very explicitly now about how if someone makes you feel uncomfortable, you come and tell someone," the assistant principal said. "And that means both students and adults."
Vol. 18, Issue 16, Page 15Published in Print: December 16, 1998, as At One California School, a 'Never-Ending Nightmare'