Blind Denial Helped Do In Ron Price

COMMENT

October 17, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

He stood, gray and grizzled, with tears dripping off the end of his nose and a rosary around his neck, and said he was sorry.

"I've said I was sorry from the beginning," Ron Price told Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Eugene Lerner. "I'm not going to stand here and make excuses and deny responsibility."

Then, he did exactly that.

He complained of the Anne Arundel County school system, which "ignored and swept under the carpet" his long history of sexually abusing his students at Northeast High School. He said many teachers besides him have been having sex with teen-age students. He implied that the temptations of working with high school girls are so great that "it's very easy for even the best intentioned teachers to fall into a trap."

"I didn't draw the line, and I was wrong," Price said -- an admission that would have counted for something had there been some sense that he really meant it, that he understood his crimes and felt genuine remorse.

There wasn't. His apology rang hollow. "I'm sorry" was the right thing to say under the circumstances; nothing more.

Price now faces 26 years in prison -- a harsh term, considering that state sentencing guidelines in this case recommended only 12 years.

After the trial, one courtroom observer said she thought Price, who could have been sentenced to up to 56 years, got off "lucky." But people who have raped or killed have ended up with less punishment than he. What Price did was inexcusable, there is no question about that. Teachers do not have sex with their students -- whether the teacher is 50 (like Price) or 25, whether the student is 14 or 18.

Judge Lerner could not have been more blunt: "You violated trust as a teacher, as a coach, as a mentor, as a friend . . . You preyed upon vulnerable people who have come to you for support . . . You had sex all over a public institution . . . You robbed children of their normal high school years."

Yet, as bad as Price's actions, it was his attitude that earned him a 26-year sentence.

Yesterday he said he was sorry. But barely a month has elapsed since his trial, at which his chief defense was that there's nothing wrong with teachers and students having sex, and that the laws prohibiting such relationships should be changed because high school students are more mature and sophisticated than they used to be.

Even his doctors, who testified on his behalf at Thursday's sentencing, stressed that Price's biggest problem is his refusal to admit that what he did was wrong and hurtful, and that he alone is responsible.

Dr. Fred Berlin, a sexual disorders specialist at the Johns Hopkins' School of Medicine, said Price still cannot get past the fact that the girls with whom he had sex were willing at the time. During their conversations, he said, Price constantly asked why what happened was not their responsibility, too.

Dr. Berlin said Price would argue that we hold teen-agers responsible when they commit crimes; why, then, should these girls not bear some of the blame if they consented?

"The point Mr. Price is missing is that the issue is not the responsibility of those youngsters," Dr. Berlin said. "The issue is his responsibility. He was the adult. He was the teacher. He has never been able to understand that this was his responsibility, not theirs."

Since his arrest last April, Price has been reduced to a caricature of a dirty old man. Though he has mainly himself to blame, he cannot be summed up so easily. During the sentencing, the doctors painted the most complete picture of Price that we have seen.

Lawrence Raifman, a clinical psychologist, described Price as a man who was deeply affected by a teacher who showed him the caring and respect he never received from his father. Teaching, in turn, became his whole life, his whole world. He wanted to give back to other students what had been given to him. He wanted to help them. He gave everything he had -- including $60,000 of his own money over a 10-year span -- to the school he loved.

Somewhere along the way, he lost sight of what it means to be a teacher. He stopped thinking of students as students and started thinking of them as adults.

"He immersed himself in student culture," Dr. Raifman said. "He regarded distinctions between students and teachers as a myth to be challenged."

When the closeness he felt toward his students, and they for him, evolved into something sexual, he saw no reason to resist. He was conscious of his own needs. Nothing else.

Many people still believe this is a case about a man on the far side of middle age abusing children. It is not. Had he been a mechanic or a salesman, Price could not have been charged for having sex with many of these girls. Normally, it is not a crime for a 17-year-old to have a relationship with an adult man.

But the rules are different for teachers. The law recognizes a special relationship of trust between they and their students -- a trust Ron Price betrayed. That is what this case is about.

Price cried and said he understands that now.

But his own words, and those of the people with his best interests at heart, show he still can't see what every teacher ought to the moment they walk in a classroom.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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