Price capitalizes on his sins, and America pays

MICHAEL OLESKER

June 13, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the telephone, Ronald Price sounds like a ma accustomed to being beaten up. His voice is edgy, his speech pattern wary. And yet, here he is taking calls, as if caught in some dreamy confusion: not wishing one more shot to the head, but not wanting to miss some possible new deal.

He is caught between the reality of his life and the perceptions now being marketed. He admits to having his way with his students at Northeast High School, but tries to paint himself as victim. He takes his story to Geraldo, America's sultan of sleaze, and seems startled when accused of cashing in. He hints publicly that he might have AIDS and wonders why people want to strangle him for unnecessarily scaring all those he seduced.

And now, just when you think all avenues of revulsion have been tapped, comes word that Price has signed an option deal with an independent Hollywood movie producer. The temptation is to imagine an X-rated feature, except for this realization: Even pornographers have their standards.

"It's a David vs. Goliath story," insists Price's attorney, Jonathan S. Resnick. "You know, how the system has come down on this guy, his rights and everything. Due process, and all that stuff."

"But," Resnick is asked, "how does the story get around the rest of it?"

"What's that?"

"The teen-age girls he seduced."

"No, no," Resnick explains, for perhaps the 12,000th time in the past two months. "You have to have the mental intent to commit a crime. And that has not been conceded."

From Anne Arundel County, where law enforcement people have him on a home monitoring system while awaiting trial, Price is willfully vague about the movie deal.

"I don't know anything," he says softly. "I just signed a piece of paper to use my name."

It almost seems the voice of a little boy roused from sleep, rubbing his eyes and wondering at all the confusion. On one hand, he's acknowledging the deal; on the other, he's denying accountability, just in case anyone finds something objectionable.

It seems an echo of his earlier explanations. In April, he admitted having sex with seven female students during his teaching career, and has been charged with child sexual abuse in three of those cases.

When his history was first revealed, Price assumed a sort of lost-child persona for himself. He didn't mean anything nasty, he just couldn't control his impulses. Yes, it happened, but why blame him?

It's the modern American creation: No one has to take responsibility any more, not if we market our actions as a disease instead of a crime. Television is our high court of public opinion, titillation with just enough social significance for daytime consumption, except that we turn off the TV feeling the need to cleanse ourselves.

Those like Price wish not only to absolve themselves of any guilt, but to gain pity as well. And, to this, Price now adds self-effacement.

"I doubt seriously it'll be about me," he says. "I'm not that important."

He knows better. He gives news interviews routinely, finds himself staring out from television sets. He went on the "Geraldo" show merely to tell his sad story, he claimed at the time, but it looks increasingly like some marketing ploy that worked.

Who gets to play Price in the movie? Jack Nicholson? Freddy Krueger?

Now there is a new storm around Price. Anne Arundel County school officials admit that they heard sexual allegations about him at least four years ago and continued to let him teach.

School officials say they thought the police were handling the investigation. Police say they knew nothing until weeks ago. Parents fume. The nation's titillation is their pain.

And Ronald Price finds himself in a position to cash in.

Next step: Attorney Resnick says Hollywood's waiting to see how the case ends.

If Price beats the rap, he's a martyr.

Loses, he's a nobody again.

Maybe he's tapped into something: the nature of human voyeurism. We decry these tales of unchecked sexuality, even as we lap them up. We allow ourselves to gaze into the peephole, so long as we express the proper outrage after we've had our fill.

"Could we talk about morality?" Price is asked over the telephone. The question seems to confuse him.

"What morality?" he asks.

"The morality of using your story in a movie. The morality of showing teen-age girls' vulnerability to the world and making money off of it."

"You'll have to talk to my attorneys," Ronald Price says.

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