Former Student Testifies That Teacher Pursued Her

Defense Says 'Mature' Student Reciprocated

July 28, 1991|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff Writer

A Howard County jury heard testimony last week from a 27-year-old Texas woman claiming that her music teacher at Centennial High School sexually abused her while she was a student there 10 years ago.

Donald Barry Cohen, 45, was charged in January with one count of sexual child abuse. The woman, who now lives in Denton, Texas, told county police of the alleged incident last August.

Cohen was acquitted two years ago on charges that he fondled a 13-year-old student while he was a band teacher at Wilde Lake Middle School.

When he was charged in January, Cohen was teaching band at Glenwood Middle School. Since that time he has been placed on administrative duties, pending his trial.

In opening statements Thursday before Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr., the prosecution portrayed the woman as a naive, confused, 17-year-old when she was a student at Centennial in 1981.

"We will prove that he took advantage of her youth and innocence and her respect for authority," Assistant State's Attorney Lillian P. Clark said of Cohen.

"We must as a society let the message go out that we will not tolerate this kind of behavior in a teacher," she said.

Cohen's lawyer, Jonathan Scott Smith, describedthe woman as a highly intelligent, mature, young woman who pursued her 35-year-old band teacher romantically while she was a senior in high school.

"This was a 17-year-old going on 30," Smith said. "She was not only a scholar but an outstanding athlete. To suggest that someone that bright and that accomplished was under some web of controlwill be ridiculous when you see her testify."

On the witness stand, the woman said she was a member of the band at Centennial, where Cohen was the music director. She also took private French horn lessons from him for three years.

During this time, the woman said she and Cohen developed a close friendship in and out of school. Cohen would occasionally take her to music stores, and she said she would visit his apartment to talk.

"The conversations were intellectually stimulating for me," she said. "He was someone knowledgeable and older than me who let me express my opinions so openly."

During her senior year in 1980-1981, she said she realized she was becoming too dependent on her relationship with Cohen and decided to talk to him aboutit. She testified that after this discussion, the two agreed not to see each other outside of school.

"I wanted to get on with the endof my senior year and be a normal kid, which I didn't feel I was," she said.

She dated a fellow student and visited Cohen in the band room less often. The woman, however, said Cohen eventually became upset and jealous over the situation.

Eventually, Cohen told her thathe had feelings for her and wanted their relationship to progress, the woman testified.

By March 1981, the woman said, she was visiting Cohen's apartment weekly and he was pressuring her to have sex withhim, but she repeatedly refused.

"He said that when two people cared about each other the way we did, sex was a part of the relationship," she testified.

The woman said she began to believe that Cohenwould withhold certain band privileges from her if she didn't have sex with him.

"I felt like I had to, I didn't know what I wanted, Ididn't know anything," she said. "I was just doing what I had to do."

In May, before her high school graduation, the woman said she went to Cohen's apartment and they had sexual intercourse.

The womantold police said she had no further contact with Cohen after this incident.

On cross-examination, however, Smith produced several letters and poems that the woman had written to Cohen while she was away at college.

The letters praised Cohen's ability as a music teacherand how much he had taught her about life.

In a A 14-page letter written in December 1981, the woman wrote Cohen that she was "demolished" and "hurt massively" because he had recently told her that he wanted to end their relationship.

The woman said she had forgotten about the letters until Smith produced them.

When asked by Smith why she waited 10 years to tell police about the incident, the woman said she was a member of a group for sex abuse victims and was encouraged to find out about taking legal action.

When she was home visiting her parents in Ellicott City last summer, she decided to contact police.

Sybert will rule today on a defense motion for acquittal onthe grounds that no custodial relationship -- necessary for a finding of child abuse -- existed between Cohen and the woman at the time of the alleged incident in 1981.

Smith maintains that the custodialrelationship in this case only extended to academic duties. Since the woman went to Cohen's apartment, Smith claimed, he no longer had responsibility for her as a teacher.

"Off school grounds that relationship ends," Smith said. "There is no 24-hour student-teacher custodial relationship."

Smith also said the charges against Cohen should be dropped because the woman was 17 at the time of the alleged incident and under Maryland laws relating to sex offenses, the age of consent for sexual intercourse is 16.

Clark argued that the teacher-student relationship continued outside of school and said that child abuse laws protect anyone younger than 18.

"A teacher doesn't lose his status as a teacher or his status as an authority figure when he leaves the school grounds. That teacher does not become a friend or alover as long as the student is attending the school where he teaches."

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