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 an October evening last fall, and Gallagher's lawyer had phoned a few hours earlier asking if he could drop by the 5th grade teacher's house in Abington, Pennsylvania, 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 recalls during 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 Gallagher had been falsely accused and that charges would be dropped. Having once faced the possibility of prison, 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, Pennsylvania, for false reporting.
Though 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 being arrested for crimes that authorities later deem fictitious are few and far between. 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. "We don't have a complete picture," says Lynn Ohman, 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, school administrators often say they tread cautiously when students accuse educators of sexual misconduct, knowing such allegations can damage reputations. "Unfortunately, when you're in the public eye, an accusation is as good as guilt," says Gary Marx, a spokesman for the Alexandria, Virginia-based American Association of School Administrators. "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," says Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational administration at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, who has studied staff-on-student sexual harassment. "The mythology out there is a lot bigger than the reality."
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," Gallagher says, voicing a view that prosecutors share.
Mary Fittipaldi, the assistant district attorney who handled Gallagher's case, says authorities initially were convinced that Powell's allegations were true. The woman, then a college student, alleged that 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," Fittipaldi recalls. "That's what's so scary about it."
But over time, inconsistencies emerged in her accounts, and she acknowledged lying about certain details, Fittipaldi says. Attempts to reach Powell for this article were unsuccessful.
The turning point came when Gallagher furnished prosecutors with an anonymous letter sent to district officials in 1993 and signed by "an 18-year-old female survivor." Citing Gallagher 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."
The letter helped shake authorities' confidence in Powell's story. Powell had repeatedly denied that her recollections were the result of therapy designed to recover repressed memories, according to Fittipaldi. The prosecutor says 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 says.
Prosecutors then gave Powell a lie-detector test, which they said she failed. Fittipaldi won't speculate on what might have motivated Powell but says the county sex-crimes unit, which she oversees, feels betrayed. "We were all used by her," she says.
At Overlook Elementary School, the 390-student school where Gallagher taught until his arrest, principal Teresa Montanaro says educators feel vulnerable and 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," Montanaro says.
Now, months after the charges against him were dropped, Gallagher still feels that injury acutely. He has lived through an educator's nightmare; suspended without pay, his days were filled with humiliation, financial worries, and fear of going to prison. Though the district has reimbursed him for back pay and the teachers' union insurance covered about $25,000 of his legal fees, he says he is still out $19,000. And he remains upset about his treatment by police and school administrators. "Not one administrator ever came forward to support me during my 10 months of agony,'' he says.
Still, he and his wife, Betty, take solace in the support they received from fellow teachers and other community members, including a $10,000 gift from one friend, bags of groceries from others, and frequent words of encouragement. Looking back, he says he wouldn't have made it without "my faith, my family, and my friends."
Though the district offered to reinstate him, Gallagher intends to retire this summer after taking a medical leave for the rest of the year. One way he plans to keep busy in retirement is by lobbying for a tougher state law against falsely reporting a crime. Shortly after he was cleared, he appeared with Republican state Representative Ellen Bard as she announced plans 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 says. "But you've got to protect the teachers, too."
Vol. 10, Issue 05, Page 23Published in Print: February 1, 1999, as THE ACCUSED