School & District Management

At One California School, a ‘Never-Ending Nightmare’

By Caroline Hendrie — December 16, 1998 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

A Trust Betrayed

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.

No Regrets

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.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 1998 edition of Education Week as At One California School, a ‘Never-Ending Nightmare’

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Pandemic-Seasoned Principals Share Hard-Earned Leadership Lessons
The COVID crisis has tested principals’ resolve to an unprecedented degree, but many have gleaned valuable takeaways from the experience.
6 min read
Boat on the water with three people inside. Leader pointing  forward. In the water around them are coronavirus pathogens.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management This Intensive Internship Helps Principals Get Ready For the Job
A two-year program in Columbus City Schools gives aspiring principals the chance to dive deep into the job before actually taking the reins.
10 min read
Sarah Foster, principal of North Linden Elementary School, talks with Katina Perry in Columbus, Ohio on November 30, 2021. Columbus City Schools has a program that lets principal “test out” the principal role, before actually fully taking it on. Through the program, they work in a school for two years under a mentor principal and fill in as principal at different schools during that time.
Katina Perry, right, principal of Fairmoor Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, meets with Sarah Foster, principal of North Linden Elementary School and Perry's mentor in a school leader internship program.
Maddie McGarvey for Education Week
School & District Management Q&A School Libraries and Controversial Books: Tips From the Front Lines
A top school librarian explains how districts can prepare for possible challenges to student reading materials and build trust with parents.
6 min read
Image of library shelves of books.
mikdam/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion ‘This Is Not What We Signed Up For’: A Principal’s Plea for More Support
School leaders are playing the role of health-care experts, social workers, mask enforcers, and more. It’s taking a serious toll.
Kristen St. Germain
3 min read
Illustration of a professional woman walking a tightrope.
Laura Baker/Education Week and uzenzen/iStock/Getty