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November 25, 2002

Doubts grow on school's safety

From: Oregonian, OR - 25 Nov 2002


VANCOUVER -- The photograph of a former Washington School for the Deaf student, who reported she was sexually abused there in 2001, was on the cover of the school's safety report to the governor in September, according to a state social worker.

The girl's foster mother saw the report in the school's lobby when she picked up the girl that month, according to a Nov. 6 letter written by Stacy J. King, a state Department of Social and Health Services family service worker.

The girl later withdrew from the school, after making suicidal statements following a meeting she was called to with one of five boys involved in the February 2001 incident, King's letter said.

The boy had left the school but was re-admitted this fall, King's letter said. The face-to-face meeting took place despite objections by the girl's foster mother and without notice to a mental health worker caring for the girl, it said.

King's Nov. 6 letter was made public Friday by Clark County Superior Court Judge Diane M. Woolard. She received it earlier this month as chairwoman of a five-member, statewide panel Gov. Gary Locke appointed in June 2001 to oversee safety improvements at the residential school.

Woolard gave King's letter to school trustees during the board's regular meeting. She was scheduled to wrap up the panel's work by talking about the group's Nov. 6 memorandum to Locke.

In that memo, the panel was critical of the school's ability to provide a safe campus for students. The six-page memo is the latest in a series of investigations, reports and studies done at the school since August 1999, when parents first publicly aired allegations of sexual misconduct on campus.

Leonard E. Aron, school superintendent, said after the meeting Friday he believes the school is safe.

He cited regular surveys in which 98 percent of the students report they "strongly agree" that they feel safe on campus.

Regular reviews by the state's Child Protective Services, which includes student interviews, support the survey results, Aron said.

"Experts say the best way to protect a child is to teach them to protect themselves, not to have guards all over the place," Aron said.

As a result, courses warning against substance and sexual abuse have been created and are taught in the classroom and residence halls, he said.

Aron said the school's suspension rate has dropped, a possible sign that students feel more responsible for their actions.

In the past three years, the school's enrollment has dropped from 171 students in May 1999 to 102 this fall.

Aron deferred questions about the panel's memo and concerns outlined in King's letter to trustees.

In July, the board moved from being an advisory panel to the governor to being a governing body responsible for the school's policies. The superintendent, who remains responsible for the daily operations at the school, continues to report to Locke.

After Woolard gave trustees King's letter, the board went into executive session to discuss "an ongoing investigation and confer with counsel regarding potential litigation," said Bonnie Terada, a state assistant attorney general representing the school.

The board will reconvene in December to follow up on the panel's memo and "to get more information from Len," Terada said.

"He has additional information specific to the complaint forwarded by the judge," she said. "This is an incomplete investigation. There are two: a pending investigation by DSHS and one by the school."

Terada said there was no specific timeline for completion of the school's investigation, but that it would be soon.

"I think the message went out that it's going to be expeditious," she said.

The monitoring panel's memo was written prior to its receipt of King's letter. However, three panel members had had "tangential contact" about the girl's situation this fall, Woolard said after the board meeting.

King called Woolard to tell her about it a month or two ago, Woolard said.

"She was extremely upset and wanted somebody to know about it," Woolard said.

In its memo to Locke, panel members said they were concerned because the school staff did not disclose her situation to them during an on-campus, safety-related visit on Oct. 30.

In addition, if what they called "anecdotal information" was correct, the school's response to the girl's concerns "were completely inadequate," the memo said.

In her letter, King also expressed concern about comments staff members made about the girl and that, during an earlier safety risk evaluation, staff had recorded a mark against her for "sexually inappropriate behavior based on the sexual assault in February 2001."

When King questioned a staff member about it, she was told the girl voluntarily entered the room where the alleged assault occurred, "could have said no" and authorities didn't file charges.

At the time, the girl was 12 and the boys involved were as old as 17.

During the meeting with the staffer, "Nothing was said about the school working to keep (the girl) safe," King's letter said.

After Friday's executive session, Pat Clothier, board chairwoman, said King's letter read like an opinion.

"I'm not seeing any documentation," Clothier said. "I need to see facts and educate myself on the incident."

The board decided to create a subcommittee to monitor the school, keep in contact with Aron and send regular reports to the entire board.

"We believe in the school and its ability to successfully provide a safe environment," Clothier said. Holley Gilbert: 360-896-5721; 503-294-5900;

Jason Begay: 360-896-5719; 503-294-5900;

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