Sex clouds pride at Northeast School hurt by teacher arrests

June 01, 1993|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writer Reporters Thomas W. Waldron and Kris Antonelli contributed to this article.

The end of high school should be a time for yearbooks, parties and celebration. But at Northeast High School in Pasadena, all that has been overshadowed by news media coverage surrounding the arrests of two teachers accused of sexually abusing students.

Now, Northeast students say they don't enjoy wearing school colors, school rings or clothes with their school's name on it as they once did. They know they'll be interrogated by strangers.

"Do you belong to the Price Club?" some wise guy invariably asks. Or "You go to the sex school." Both are references to Ronald Walter Price, the social studies teacher who was arrested in April on child sex abuse charges.

"We cannot go anywhere without hearing about our school," complains Holly, a junior who would not give her last name. Even the school's scholarship ceremony last week had an unusual edge to it.

"A lot of teachers wouldn't even hug the kids like they usually do, and when they did, everyone said, 'Wooo,' " says Carlene Heilman, president of the school PTSA. "It's a shame."

Mr. Price has been charged with sexually abusing three former students. On the heels of those charges, science teacher Laurie Susanne Cook was arrested May 15, charged with allowing a male student to fondle and kiss her. Ms. Cook has insistently professed her innocence.

But Mr. Price has appeared on national television, admitting he has had sex with at least seven girls and blaming it on an unspecified illness.

His startling disclosure has put Northeast on the map -- for all the wrong reasons.

"The ones I feel sorry for are the seniors, because they don't have any more time," says Barbara Treadwell, the mother of a sophomore. "This is their day, this is what they've worked 12 years for."

It's certainly not much fun at school, with police visiting, rumors of student walkouts and speculation about which teacher will be next. Leaflets about protests and copies of a ditty lampooning Mr. Price's affair with one girl have been stuffed into lockers.

Then there are the news media.

Camera crews wait to interview students as they walk to and from school. Mr. Price has been on "A Current Affair" and "Geraldo" since his arrest, acknowledging that he has had multiple affairs with girls.

"The biggest distraction has been the press," says Erin, another junior who would not give her last name. "We really hope everything gets back to normal soon."

To speed that process, parents have been demanding answers to assuage the fears and concerns they and their children have about how school administrators handled the child abuse cases.

Frustrated by school administrators who kept silent for weeks, citing the confidential nature of personnel issues, parents finally succeeded in scheduling a meeting last week -- but only after they met with Nancy Grasmick, the state school superintendent.

At the Northeast meeting, Huntley J. Cross, special assistant to the county superintendent, tried to allay fears that the school was being singled out. He said allegations have been raised against as many as 30 teachers countywide in the past few months, but only two "were found to have substance" -- those involving Mr. Price and Ms. Cook.

Linda Tetrault, a member of the Northeast PTSA, says she was reassured by the officials' response.

"I feel the meeting was very positive," she says. "The parents knew there were going to be questions they couldn't answer. The lawyer laid the cards on the table at the beginning of the

meeting."

In any case, students and teachers now say they just want to enjoy a normal week before graduation Saturday.

"When we met with teachers, they asked us not to continue putting the story in the media," Northeast Principal Joseph J. Carducci said at the parents' meeting. "They're tired of being battered. They're asking for a rest, for themselves, and your children."

Then he turned to reporters on the edge of the crowd and urged them to stay away from graduation, or at least write "positive and upbeat" stories out of respect for students and their families.

Dr. Carducci also has been trying to work more closely with the school PTSA to boost school morale.

Despite their frustrations, parents and teachers agree it's time to focus on the future.

"Let's look forward and not back," says Mrs. Tetrault. "Let's have the media keep the camera crews away from our school and the news writers as well. Leave our students alone and let them get the quality education they deserve."

Mrs. Heilman says she hopes the graduates can now be free to concentrate on their futures.

"At the awards ceremony, I was as proud of the two boys going to the Naval Academy, and the student going into the Air Force, as if they were my own," Mrs. Heilman says. "It brought a lump to my throat. I felt proud of being in the school and seeing this. But it also brought a little sadness. I hope the seniors can have fond memories of their school. This was to be a year of happiness for them."

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