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December 20, 2002

Group demands that head of deaf school be ousted

From: Seattle Post Intelligencer, WA - 20 Dec 2002

Advocates cite report that students remain vulnerable to abuse


An advocacy group for the deaf is demanding that Gov. Gary Locke fire the superintendent of the Washington School for the Deaf, after a safety panel's warning that students are still at risk of abuse.

The call to remove Len Aron comes on the heels of the state-appointed panel's final report to Locke, which criticized school officials for requiring a 14-year-old girl to meet with an older teenage boy who she claims twice sexually assaulted her on the Vancouver campus.

The girl attempted suicide Sept. 16 -- hours after the meeting in Aron's office -- prompting the panel to conclude in its report Nov. 6 that staff members at the state-run school "do not seem to understand the dynamics of victimization."

Although the meeting was apparently intended to help the students get past the incidents, the girl's foster mother opposed it because she knew the teenager was afraid of the boy.

"It's time for new leadership who can bring swift changes," said Marilyn Smith, executive director of Seattle-based Abused Deaf Women's Advocacy Services. "Enough time has been wasted."

Aron has repeatedly minimized the problem of sexual abuse at the residential school, Smith said, adding that the "last straw" was the staff's insensitivity in dealing with the 14-year-old girl.

"I see the fallout," Smith said, noting that abused children from the school have come to her group for help.

This is the first deaf community organization to call for Aron's removal. Community leaders have been reluctant to speak out, fearing bad publicity could jeopardize the 116-year-old school's future.

Locke set up the five-member safety panel, led by Clark County Superior Court Judge Diane Woolard, in June 2001 after an investigation by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer documented the school's failure for decades to protect children from sexual and physical abuse by fellow students and employees.

The governor, who appointed Aron in 1998, has steadfastly defended the superintendent despite dozens of reports of rapes, molestation and sexual harassment. School enrollment has dropped from 120 in 2001 to 102 students this year.

Locke's office did not respond to several requests for comment.

State Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, first called for Aron's resignation in August 2001 after he said in a deposition in a negligence lawsuit that a student "made up" a rape allegation to get attention.

"It's incredibly sad that the school has not been able to turn around its culture enough to protect children," Dickerson said this week. "It's clear to me that what is needed is a change of administration."

Dickerson and other legislators plan to meet with the school's eight-member board next month to discuss their concerns.

Surprised by the safety panel's criticisms, Aron said he believes the school is safe.

"I don't think I should resign," he said, adding that he is confident that the board still supports him.

He declined to discuss the girl's suicide attempt, except to say that Child Protective Services is investigating the matter.

In its report, Woolard's panel said the staff's handling of the girl and her concerns was "completely inadequate." The panel criticized school officials for failing to disclose the suicide attempt during a meeting in late October.

"The panel is unclear as to whether the staff fail to perceive this as a safety issue . . . or whether the staff are minimizing or concealing events that do not reflect well on the school," the report said.

The girl's foster mother said in an interview that the teenager was frightened when the boy was allowed to re-enroll in August. Before the September meeting, the mother said she told staff members that the boy had threatened the girl by e-mail.

In February 2001, the boy reportedly fondled one of the girl's breasts and served as a lookout while another teenager repeatedly sexually assaulted the then-12-year-old girl in the laundry room of a residential cottage. Three other teenagers were also involved, ranging in age up to 18, according to a police report.

After the incident, all of the boys left the school. Two were charged with second-degree rape, but those charges were dismissed.

The boy who recently returned to the school is also alleged to have sexually assaulted another girl in 2000 at the school, and once tried to bring a BB gun on campus, according to the panel's report.

After being forced to meet with the boy Sept. 16, the girl tried to kill herself by swallowing perfume and other toxic liquids and had to be hospitalized, the foster mother said.

"My daughter had to leave, but he was allowed to stay," said the foster mother, who asked not to be identified. "They created an environment where she wasn't safe."

Vancouver police interviewed the girl recently about an allegation that the same boy raped her in a dorm in 2000, the foster mother said.

Social worker Stacy King with the state Department of Social and Health Services wrote a Nov. 6 letter to Woolard complaining that school staff members had blamed the girl for "sexually inappropriate behavior" in the 2001 assault and showed little awareness of her needs.

"The department does not feel that (the school) is capable of ensuring her safety," King wrote.

The safety panel's report said the school has improved its admission and expulsion policies, increased staff in the dorms and offered safety training to staff members and students.

But the report also indicated that the school was documenting less information about abuse-related incidents in what could be an effort to "obscure" the facts and "reduce the level of accountability at the school."

Finally, the panel said, "it is not clear whether, without prompting, the school has the innate instincts required to protect children's safety" and recommended that the board consider asking for continued outside assistance.

Smith, of the advocacy group, believes the board should hire a sexual abuse consultant. "I don't think they are getting the expertise they need."

The School Board is working hard to investigate the panel's concerns and protect children, Chairwoman Pat Clothier said. "We have not finished our ongoing discussions with staff," she said, suggesting that the panel's report may be inaccurate.

Clothier said the board plans to evaluate Aron in June using a new process. The board can make recommendations to Locke about whether to retain Aron, but Locke makes the final decision.

"We feel it's premature to ask for his resignation," Clothier said.

The safety panel's concerns echo those in a report released a year ago by the state's former ombudsman for families and children. Vickie Wallen questioned whether Aron could be trusted to implement safety reforms given his persistent denials about sexual abuse on campus.

The families of nine former students have filed tort claims or lawsuits since 1998 alleging that the school failed to protect children from abuse.

Seattle attorney David Moody, who filed a $9.5 million tort claim in August on behalf of a former student who was raped in a school restroom, said he is talking to the state about a possible settlement.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of a 10-year-old Tacoma boy who was sexually assaulted by another boy in a school dorm in 1999 was settled this month for $150,000, said the family's attorney, Steve Bulzomi.

"It was a difficult decision but was the best thing for the family under the circumstances," said Bulzomi, who is handling four other lawsuits on behalf of former students.

Spokane attorney Mark Kamitomo said he is proceeding with a lawsuit on behalf of another former student who was raped on campus.

The state agreed in August 2001 to pay the family of one victim $125,000 to settle their lawsuit. One former student withdrew her case before trial and is seeking new counsel.

P-I reporter Ruth Teichroeb can be reached at 206-448-8175 or

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