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January 13, 2003

Deaf school trustees agree on sending letter to Locke

From: Oregonian, OR - 13 Jan 2003


VANCOUVER -- Trustees for the Washington School for the Deaf agreed Friday to send a letter to Gov. Gary Locke during the weekend outlining concerns about the school's future.

Duane Sommers, a trustee and former Republican state representative from Spokane, said everyone wants the residential school to stay open.

But no one would comment on what the letter would address or whether trustees and six visiting legislators discussed the future of Leonard E. Aron, the school's superintendent.

Much of the board's regular meeting went into closed-door sessions to discuss what members said was a personnel matter.

State Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, did say, however, that the executive session enabled participants to "get down to brass tacks" on the subject of safety.

"Enough is enough," Zarelli said. "We're to a point where there's no more time on the clock when it comes to safety at the school. That was the bulk of our conversation."

Along with Zarelli, Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle; Rep. Ruth Cagi, D-Lake Forest Park; Democratic Reps. Bill Fromhold and Val Ogden of Vancouver; and Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Carrolls; attended the meeting.

Aron has been under scrutiny since August 1999, when parents and teachers first publicly aired concerns about sexual misconduct and abuse on the residential school's campus at a meeting that Zarelli sponsored.

The concerns have spawned a series of investigations, studies and reports. The latest was a Nov. 6 memorandum to Locke from a five-member monitoring panel he appointed to oversee safety changes at the school.

In that memo, the panel questioned whether the school was capable of providing a safe environment for students and whether its leadership "will use appropriate judgment to continue to improve the school's safety procedures."

Ten lawsuits and one tort claim have been filed against the state in recent years alleging sexual and physical misconduct at the school.

Aron could not be reached for comment.

The trustees' letter to Locke will come from Pat Clothier, chairwoman of the board. The board sets policy for the school and is answerable to the governor, who hires and fires the superintendent.

Kari Burrell, executive policy advisor to Locke on human services, said she thought Clothier's letter could include comments on the Nov. 6 memo. The governor had asked the trustees "to take a look at the concerns raised by the panel," Burrell said.

Locke didn't impose a deadline for a response, but a fairly quick turnaround time was expected, Burrell said.

Zarelli declined to characterize the legislators' comments Friday. He said the trustees earlier in the day "made some determination . . . about how the school will be led in the future," but that he did not know what it was.

Zarelli said Aron has made positive changes during his nearly five years as superintendent.

"He took the school to higher ground regarding a level of service. He's made improvements," Zarelli said. "But in issues regarding safety, we're not getting there. Maybe that begs heavy consideration of whether we'll get there under the current administration." Holley Gilbert: 360-896-5721; 503-294-5900;

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