An Alarm Unheeded School custodian is accused of sexual trysts with young teen

March 26, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

The principal didn't like what he saw: a custodian frequently talking to an eighth-grade girl in the hallway, helping her sort out emotional troubles.

Twice, he told Richard Gray to stop.

"I said, 'Richard, you must be careful. We can't cross the line,' " recalls Michael Zajdel, former principal of Parkville Middle School.

"Not because I thought he was doing anything wrong, but because I wanted to protect him, and both of them. I didn't want her to become too dependent on him. I didn't want him to be drawn into something he didn't have the background in."

That warning, roughly 15 months ago, was only one among many that preceded a traumatic discovery March 10: a middle-of-the-night arrest that left in its wake a teen-age victim and two wounded families, and violated the security of the cocoon-like building.

One of their own, the friendly head custodian who knew kids' names, pitched in with after-school gymnastics and helped fix computers, was arrested just before 3 a.m. and charged with second-degree rape in what police said was a sexual relationship with the 14-year-old girl, a student at the school until this year.

The arrest came after a German shepherd, sent in after a suspected burglar, found the girl hiding in a makeshift bed in the custodian's office -- and bit her as she tried to fight it off.

The news tore into the lives of the victim and her family, and another family: the custodian's wife and young children.

"It has devastated our school," says Stephen A. Edgar, principal of the magnet school in middle-class, suburban Baltimore County, always presumed a place that protects the innocent.

Students and staff were enveloped with feelings of betrayal. And, in some cases, guilt.

A number of adults -- administrators, teachers, parents -- had noticed what they thought was unusual behavior for a 44-year-old man with someone a third his age.

Some now regret not making a fuss. Even the girl's father was lulled into believing the relationship was benign: Gray had helped the girl work out emotional problems -- including those resulting from a previous incident of sexual abuse -- when no one else could.

The case offers a potent lesson to schools, say experts who specialize in sexuality: Watch employees who stretch job boundaries and form "special relationships," even the well-meaning kind.

"This was very public for what it was. Everybody could see what was going on, but nobody could see it," says Gregory K. Lehne, a psychologist and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who also trains school staffs in spotting sexual abuse.

"They kept justifying the relationship because of the girl's special needs."

To protect the identify of the victim, The Sun has omitted certain names and details from this article, which is based on interviews with the girl's father and mother, administrators, teachers, parents, students, police and others close to the case, as well as court records.

Gray declined to be interviewed. His lawyer did not return calls, but Gray's wife says the lawyer did not want to speak about the case and advised the family to decline to comment.

The story of the janitor and the girl began in the fall of 1995, when the student -- a bright, attractive, outgoing and athletic teen who loves to work with children -- was struggling with tumult in her life.

Her parents were having marital troubles. In the summer of 1995, just before her eighth-grade year, she was sexually abused but kept it quiet for six months.

That fall, she changed. Her grades plunged from nearly straight A's to C's and D's, her father says. Once warm and affectionate at home, she turned icy and uncommunicative.

Baffled, her father turned to a guidance counselor, and the school put the girl on a schedule of reports to monitor each assignment.

At the time, Gray was facing twists in his own life. He was in a job well below his qualifications: a bachelor's degree in business administration/management from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and a master's degree in physical education from Western Maryland College, which he had once hoped would lead to a college coaching job.

For years, Gray had worked as a corporate purchasing agent and cost analyst, developing expertise in computers both on the job and on his own. But as he neared 40, he was caught in a spate of corporate cutbacks and laid off three times in 2 1/2 years, his wife says.

He took the job of night custodian for the school system in January 1994 so he could support his family and interview during the day. When nothing worked out, he made peace with the job and moved to the day shift, eventually becoming head custodian during school hours.

Coach and trouble-shooter

But he continued to use his expertise, as a freshman boys lacrosse coach at Loyola High, his alma mater. At Parkville Middle, he helped the gym teacher spot students in after-school gymnastics, and often came to the rescue when computers needed trouble-shooting.

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