School official sued by 2 boys Suit says he tried to seduce them

November 08, 1992|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

Two male students have filed suit against the former principal of Rodgers Forge Elementary School, charging that he "touched them in a sexually suggestive manner" and sought to seduce them during conferences in his office.

The suit alleges that Joseph T. Watkins, who retired from the school system last June, "developed a sexual interest" in the youngsters while he was principal at Rodgers Forge and at various times gave the boys money and gifts, wrote them letters and insisted on driving at least one of them to a toy store.

"I certainly intend to fight the allegations," said Mr. Watkins, who lives in Timonium.

He referred all further questions to his attorney, Charles Kerr, who said it is "a bit early" to respond to the charges. The suit was filed last week in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

The lawsuit specifically accuses Mr. Watkins of assault, battery and breach of contract. It alleges that he "threatened, by his words and acts, to do bodily harm" to the boys and that he touched them "in a harmful and offensive manner."

It does not allege any direct sexual contact.

The breach of contract arises because Mr. Watkins did not carry out his duties as principal "with integrity," the suit says.

The Baltimore County Board of Education is also named as a defendant. The suit seeks $1 million in damages for each boy from Mr. Watkins and the school board, according to the boys' attorney, David Albright.

Neither the children nor their parents are identified in the documents. "We've attempted to proceed in a fashion that will protect the confidentiality of the children," Mr. Albright said.

"There is absolutely no merit to the allegations of this complaint," said Baltimore attorney Leslie Stellman, who is representing the school system. He said that "a thorough investigation was indeed conducted" by the school department after the alleged incidents were brought to the board's attention but before the suit was filed.

"What they are asking is totally out of line," he declared.

Because the suit involves minors and a personnel matter, neither Mr. Albright nor Mr. Stellman would discuss the suit further.

Superintendent of Schools Stuart Berger and school board President Rosalie Hellman also declined to comment.

Mr. Watkins, who was principal at Rodgers Forge for at least five years, worked for the school system for more than 30 years, said Myra Treiber, spokeswoman for the county schools. She did not know his age or where else he had worked.

Mr. Watkins is alleged to have focused his attention on each boy separately -- one during the 1989-1990 school year and the other during the 1991-1992 school year. One boy was 10 and the other 11 when the incidents allegedly occurred, Mr. Albright said. Both are still in the school system.

Accompanying the lawsuit documents are copies of handwritten letters -- two at least four pages long -- that Mr. Watkins is alleged to have sent to each boy. In the letters, he says how special the boys are and how much he misses them.

According to the suit, Mr. Watkins began removing one boy from class for conferences on alleged "disciplinary matters." During these conferences, the principal is alleged to have touched the youngster "in a sexually suggestive manner" and "restricted the freedom of movement without his consent." He is also said to have stared at the youth from a distance and "developed a longing desire" for him.

After the boy graduated from Rodgers Forge, Mr. Watkins is said to have written him three letters.

The first letter, dated Sept. 4, 1990, says, "I have been very worried about you because I have not seen you for 11 weeks and that has seemed like an eternity. I am sure that you know that I miss you very much, and that I would love to see you . . . ."

Another letter, dated Oct. 7, says, "It is with deep regret and much sadness that I am writing . . . I think I have to face the facts and stop kidding myself. At the end of last year, I told you that I was so afraid that once you left Rodgers Forge I really wouldn't see you again and that our friendship wouldn't survive. . . . You know that you touched my life in a way that no other student has before or will ever again."

The letter chides the boy for not coming to visit, thanks him for "many wonderful memories" and promises not to bother the boy with "any more notes after this."

The suit alleges a similar pattern of attention toward the second boy, with conferences occurring about twice a week from September 1991 to February 1992.

Even when the boy "told Watkins he no longer wished to see him in a private conference, Watkins continued his sexual pursuit" and tried to discourage the youngster's friendship with a girl in his class, the suit alleges. Later, while the boy was recuperating from a broken leg, Mr. Watkins is said to have written him two letters.

The conferences and attention, the suit alleges, brought the boys and their parents "severe mental distress" for which they should be compensated.

The suit contains nine counts. Mr. Watkins and the board are named in eight of them; the ninth charges the school board with negligence in exercising "ordinary and reasonable care in the hiring, selection, monitoring, supervision and training of Watkins."

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