IM this article to a friend!

January 22, 2003

Head of deaf school resigns

From: Seattle Post Intelligencer, WA - 22 Jan 2003

Calls for ouster followed report that students still weren't safe


Faced with a no-confidence vote and a lingering campus sex-abuse scandal, the superintendent of the state-run Washington School for the Deaf resigned yesterday.

The school board demanded that Gov. Gary Locke remove Len Aron after a closed-door meeting Jan. 10 over concerns raised by a state-appointed safety panel.

The panel warned in its final report to Locke two months ago that the residential Vancouver school still wasn't safe for students and that administrators lacked the "innate instincts required to protect children's safety."

That prompted calls for Aron's ouster from an advocacy group for the deaf and a state legislator.

The school's eight-member board of trustees echoed that request in a Jan. 12 letter to the governor.

"Governor Locke is accepting his resignation," Michael Marchand, Locke's spokesman, said last night. "He believes this is the way to proceed."

An interim superintendent will be appointed after Aron leaves Feb.15, and a search will begin immediately for a permanent replacement, Marchand said.

Aron could not be reached for comment.

Locke, who appointed Aron in 1998, has steadfastly defended the superintendent through more than two years of controversy about dozens of reports of rapes, molestation and sexual harassment on campus.

After an investigation by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in April 2001 documented decades of unchecked sexual and physical abuse of students at the 116-year-old school, Locke appointed the safety panel to oversee reforms and monitor Aron's progress.

Locke insisted Aron would make the campus safer, even though legislators and victims' families soon began criticizing the superintendent's insensitivity to abuse victims.

News of Aron's resignation prompted relief among families of students who suffered sexual abuse at the school.

"I am so excited," said the grandmother of a girl who reported being raped in a campus bathroom by a male student in 1999. "Aron's attitude was that it was all her fault. A man with that attitude doesn't deserve to be running a school."

The executive director of the Seattle-based Abused Deaf Women's Advocacy Services said she is glad the board supported her call for Aron's removal.

"We should look at this as a new beginning for the school," Marilyn Smith said. "I think the governor gave Len a great deal of time to get it together."

A top priority in selecting the school's next superintendent should be that the person be experienced at addressing sexual abuse, Smith said.

State Rep. Ruth Kagi said Aron made positive changes on the academic side but failed in his duty to protect children.

"Addressing safety is a primary duty of a superintendent," said Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park. "With a superintendent who understands that, we will be able to make more progress."

One of the first tasks of the new superintendent will be determining whether "further staff changes are needed," Kagi said.

At the meeting Jan. 10 meeting with the School Board, attended by six legislators, Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson said she and others were frank, saying that "time is up" and urging them to recommend Aron be fired from the more than $84,000-a-year job.

"He kept minimizing sexual abuse and appeared to have an attitude of 'blame the victim,' " said Dickerson, a Seattle Democrat. "He just never quite got it."

Dickerson 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.

The school's next superintendent will need to address the "culture of the school," which led to a failure to protect children, Dickerson said: "It wasn't only the superintendent who failed to recognize the significance of sexual abuse of students."

The board's chairwoman, Pat Clothier, said she couldn't comment because she had not received official confirmation of Aron's fate.

The safety panel's report was just the latest indication that the school was failing to prevent sexually aggressive students from preying on other children.

In November 2001, a report by the state's former ombudsman for families and children documented how Aron had allowed a group of sexually aggressive boys to repeatedly assault students. Vickie Wallen questioned at that time whether Aron could be trusted to improve safety given his persistent denials about sexual abuse.

Those concerns were enough to persuade some families not to send their children to the school, and enrollment dropped from 120 students in 2001 to 102 students this year.

Kagi and other legislators also hinted yesterday that they will be examining whether the school was the best way to educate deaf children.

Aron arrived at the school with a questionable track record that did not come to light until the P-I investigation.

He had previously worked for six years for North Carolina's division of deaf and hard-of-hearing in that state's Department of Health and Human Services, where the superintendents of the state's three residential schools for the deaf reported to him.

Aron quit that job to lead the Washington school amid a controversy about improper reporting of sexual abuse allegations at the North Carolina schools. A spokesman for Locke said that information did not turn up during a pre-employment background check on Aron, even though the issue was covered by local newspapers.

Since Aron took charge at the Washington school, the families of nine former students have filed tort claims or lawsuits alleging that the school failed to protect children from abuse by other students and staff.

Two of those lawsuits have been settled out of court, while one student withdrew her case before trial and is seeking new counsel. The other six cases are proceeding.

Ted Karanson of Tacoma, legal guardian of a former student who has filed a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse, said ousting Aron is a step in the right direction.

"The hard work will be finding a replacement to Aron who is not the status quo," said Karanson, a former teacher of deaf students who believes the school should be shut down. "A lot of damage has been done."


# 1998
-- Gov. Gary Locke names Len Aron superintendent of the Washington School for the Deaf

# 2000
-- Five reported student-on-student rapes during 1998-99 school year spur safety improvements.

# April 2001
-- P-I investigation finds cycle of rape, molestation and sex harassment spanning decades -- and students still aren't safe.

# June 2001
-- Locke orders sweeping safety reforms, appoints six-member watchdog panel a month later.

# November 2001
-- State Family and Children's Ombudsman report finds school administrators failed to control sexually aggressive students for years.

# March 2002
-- Lawmakers strengthen school's governing board, order Department of Social and Health Services to monitor campus safety.

December 2002 -- Advocacy group for the deaf demands Aron's ouster after state-appointed safety panel concludes students remain at risk.

# Jan. 10, 2003
-- School's governing board votes "no confidence" in Aron.

# Yesterday
-- Aron resigns.

The P-I's special report on the Washington School for the Deaf is online at

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

©1996-2003 Seattle Post-Intelligencer