Habit to deny abuse led school system to scandal

December 17, 1993|By Carol L. Bowers and Andrea F. Siegel | Carol L. Bowers and Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writers

Amid reams of dusty, long-forgotten files unearthed in the final days of a probe of the Anne Arundel County school system lay perhaps the most damning of all documents -- a letter that says a principal should have intervened to keep a child abuse case from going to court.

Written after the fifth-grade teacher was convicted of assault, the December 1978 letter from then-Deputy Superintendent C. Berry Carter II is a vivid example of a school system where, the report establishes, priorities had gone awry.

Sadly, in the years that followed, the efforts of administrators to protect the system's image from a repeat of the "unfortunate embarrassment" of the 1978 case had the opposite effect: They created an atmosphere that led to the ultimate embarrassment.

In April, Northeast High School teacher and softball and drama coach Ronald Walter Price went on national television to declare that administrators knew of his proclivity for having sex with students.

Suddenly, the school system's fondness for denial became an issue. The system set up by Mr. Carter fostered a "see no evil, hear no evil" attitude in which denial was the norm.

"It was almost a requirement to produce a Polaroid picture before an allegation would be taken seriously. With Price, each incident was treated separately, so no one put the puzzle together," said Eleanor M. Carey, who with Washington attorney Alan I. Baron conducted the investigation into the school system that routinely mishandled allegations of child abuse.

Price, convicted of child abuse in September, was a textbook profile of a child abuser, according to the investigators who conducted the four-month examination of the Anne Arundel schools. But educators who did voice concerns about colleagues such as Price were either ostracized or forced to defend their statements -- and eventually themselves.

The investigators, along with experts in the field of child abuse, say several factors -- among them denial, an established power base and a circle-the-wagons mentality -- combine to allow child abusers latitude in a school system such as Anne Arundel's.

Price called clever

"People weren't trained to recognize the signs. Price disarmed them," Mr. Baron said yesterday. "I think he was very clever with that. He won over the parents. He did help the kids in some ways -- their grades improved."

Nobody wants to suspect teachers, to whom parents entrust their children, of taking physical liberties with students, said Mark Ells, senior attorney with the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse in Alexandria, Va., which advises lawyers and others how to proceed with child abuse cases.

Because of that, educators and children who reported problems with Price were in turn victimized. Administrators looked the other way. And Price was able to get away with his crime for over a decade.

After social studies teacher Marlene Ramey reported her suspicions about Price in 1987, she found herself isolated and eventually decided that a transfer out of the school was her only relief.

Joseph Cardamone, principal at Northeast in the late 1980s, heard several reports about Price but took no action, according to the Baron report. He also did not relay the suspicions to Joseph Carducci, who took over as principal in 1991.

The report criticizes Dr. Carducci's handling of the furor that followed Price's arrest, saying he continued to "operate virtually as if nothing had happened."

Skills questioned

While the report did not question his "integrity or commitment," it said "his skills at dealing with people are reputedly wholly inadequate, and faculty members and staff are cowed into silence for fear of losing their positions."

Dr. Carducci, speaking from his office yesterday, defended his handling of the situation. "I sleep fine knowing I did not do anything wrong," he said. "People will believe what they want to believe. There is no Watergate, no cover up, no Deep Throat. We're just a school trying, under very difficult circumstances, to do what we are supposed to do: educate students.

Attitudes didn't change overnight with Price's arrest. When the Northeast High School student who first levelled charges against Price returned to class, she was taunted and became the subject of cruel jokes. One student even wrote lyrics about the illicit romance to the tune of the "The Brady Bunch" theme song.

'State of denial'

"Not only are the kids cruel, but the educational community is cruel because they're in a state of denial," Sherry Bithell, author of "Educator Sexual Abuse" and a teacher in Idaho for 27 years, said of situations such as the one at Northeast. "And they're in a state of cover-up because this is a reflection on the institution. 'If this is really true,' they think, 'what does this say about our schools? Or how it could go on so long undetected?' "

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