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January 22, 2003

Superintendent of state deaf school resigns

From: Charlotte Observer, NC - 22 Jan 2003

Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Leonard E. Aron, a former superintendent for deaf schools in North Carolina, has resigned as superintendent of the Washington School for the Deaf after the state institution's board demanded his ouster over a sex abuse scandal.

The resignation, also sought by a state legislator and an advocacy group upset by Aron's response to reports of decades of sex abuse at the state residential school in Vancouver, was submitted Tuesday, said Michael Marchand, a spokesman for Gov. Gary Locke.

"He's submitted a verbal resignation with a letter to follow shortly," Marchand said Wednesday, citing the school board's position as the most important factor for the governor.

The school's eight-member Board of Trustees demanded Aron's removal in a letter to Locke on Jan. 12.

An interim superintendent will be appointed after Aron leaves the $84,000-a-year job Feb. 15 and a search will begin immediately for a permanent replacement, Marchand said.

Since Locke appointed Aron in 1998, the families of nine former students at the 116-year-old school have filed damage claims or lawsuits accusing the school of failing to protect children from abuse by other students and staff.

Two lawsuits have been settled out of court, one case has been withdrawn before trial while the plaintiffs seek a new lawyer, and the remaining six are pending.

Enrollment dropped from 120 students in 2001 to 102 students this year.

The board's letter came two days after a closed meeting with six legislators to discuss the findings of a state-appointed panel, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported.

In a final report to Locke two months ago, the panel found that the school remained unsafe and that administrators lacked the "innate instincts required to protect children's safety."

Aron also drew fire in six years as overseer of the superintendents of all three North Carolina state residential schools for the deaf.

He left for Washington state amid accusations of improper reporting of claims of sexual abuse at the schools, an issue Locke aides said was absent from a background check although it was covered by newspapers in North Carolina.

The governor appointed the safety panel following a P-I report in April 2001 on decades of sexual and physical abuse of students and dozens of reports of rape, molestation and sexual harassment.

At the same time, Locke maintained that Aron would make the campus safer despite complaints that the superintendent was insensitive to abuse victims.

State Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, asked that Aron be removed in August 2001 after he said in a deposition for a negligence lawsuit that a student "made up" a rape accusation to get attention.

Vickie Wallen, former state ombudsman for families and children, wrote in a report in November 2001 that Aron had allowed a group of sexually aggressive boys to repeatedly assault other students. The report also questioned whether Aron could improve safety while denying that sexual abuse had occurred.

Abused Deaf Women's Advocacy Services in Seattle joined the call for Aron's ouster last month.

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

Aron's replacement should be experienced in dealing with sexual abuse, Smith said.

One of the first jobs for the new superintendent will be deciding whether further staff changes are needed, said state Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park.

The "culture of the school" was instrumental in the failure to protect children, Dickerson said. "It wasn't only the superintendent who failed to recognize the significance of sexual abuse of students."

Dickerson said she, Kagi and four other lawmakers told trustees in the meeting Jan. 10 that "time is up."

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

© 2003 Charlotte Observer