How Could It Happen?

January 12, 1994

When Ronald Walter Price confessed to a blatant history of having sex with his high school students in Anne Arundel County last year, the question that begged answering above all others was how could he have gotten away with it for so long. This week, as accusations of child abuse more unspeakable than Price's mount against former Catholic Community Middle School teacher John Merzbacher, the same question looms.

If these allegations are true, how could such things happen in a parochial school where high standards of discipline, order and accountability seemed to guarantee children's safety? How could a teacher, alleged to have molested 40 or more children over three decades, have gone undetected?

It stretches the bounds of credulity to believe that none of the dozens of alleged victims ever told a parent; that no parent ever complained to the Archdiocese of Baltimore. It is impossible to understand how a teacher could have kept dope and guns in his desk, gotten children drunk at a topless bar and fondled them on his lap without any responsible adult knowing until now.

We suspect that, if the allegations are true, the accused teacher got away with it the same way Price did -- because somebody who knew did nothing to stop him. For the safety of today's students and their parents' peace of mind, it must be determined whether church officials, teachers or perhaps even the alleged victims' parents ignored the signs of abuse and left children vulnerable.

If it is found that certain school officials are culpable, they should be held accountable. But that alone will not make schools safe for children. Safety lies in recognizing that, while only a tiny fraction of teachers are guilty of misconduct, bad apples do find their way into the barrel.

In the wake of the Price debacle, denial persists, especially among some teachers' unions that insist Price is an aberration. They reacted much as the Catholic church did initially when allegations of child abuse among priests began surfacing several years ago -- by refusing to see where trouble lay. The church, commendably, has started to recognize such problems do, indeed, exist.

We don't know how widespread child abuse is in the schools, but Ron Price's case showed that schools are not immune. The accusations made by a shockingly large number of adults who were once students of John Merzbacher reinforce the need for heightened sensitivity to this problem from both educators and parents.

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