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Colbert I. King

My City in a Different Light

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page A19

PARIS -- Sometimes the best way to get a good perspective on your hometown's problems is to leave for a while. No sooner had my wife, Gwen, and I reached the United Airlines lounge at Dulles Airport last week than a story in the New York Times caused me to see the District of Columbia in a different light.

It was a report about Roslyn, N.Y., school superintendent Frank A. Tassone and his former assistant superintendent for business, Pamela Gluckin. The two, along with a former clerk, are accused of ripping off their affluent Long Island school district for at least $11.2 million over an eight-year period. Indicted on charges of grand larceny, both have pleaded not guilty. Their day in court will come. How they will answer allegations that they spent taxpayer dollars on a mortgage on a luxury home in Florida, hotel suites, artwork and the like remains to be seen. Their legal strategy is not the issue. Who they are is.

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From kindergarten through the 12th grade, D.C. public schools were my home away from home. And for the past 15 years, I have used this perch to write volumes about the beleaguered D.C. public school system and its leaders.

That said, it's fair to state that from the time of my 1944 enrollment in the system up to and including this moment, no D.C. school superintendent -- or any combination of D.C. school superintendents -- has ever been accused of systematically and feloniously taking so much public money to enrich and benefit so few. The Times reports that the scandal "is the most pervasive such school fraud in the country," according to the National School Boards Association.

Oh, sure, there is the problem of the Washington Teachers Union officials allegedly letting the good times roll with union funds. But the accused weren't D.C. school officials.

Here's the point: Stacked up against the indicted Long Island school officials, D.C. school leaders, past and present, resemble Little Rebeccas of Sunnybrook Farm.

And our plane hadn't even lifted off the runway.

Hours later, I saw a TV headline in the airport lounge. Surely it can't be so, I said to myself. But after getting settled in Paris, I had time to digest the front-page story in the International Herald Tribune: A pedophile case had opened the day before in Angers, located in France's Loire Valley, also the home of Cointreau.

Thirty-nine men and 27 women, the Tribune reported, were charged with rape or selling some 45 of their children. The children, offered in exchange for money, groceries or cigarettes, ranged in age from teenagers to just months old, the story said.

In my 15 years of writing commentaries on child abuse and neglect in the District, I have never come across a tragedy rivaling the massive corruption and exploitation of children now on display in France. The French media, the Tribune said, are calling the case the largest criminal proceeding in the country's history.

Most assuredly, D.C. agencies in the past have failed vulnerable children, as numerous Post stories and editorials have noted over the years. But France's ability to protect children at risk is being called into question in a way the District has never had to face.

I didn't really have to go abroad to put Washington's problems in focus. I could have stayed in the United States. I could have ventured out to Wichita to see how they handled homicides in their midst.

The District has its killers, as critics love to note, ignoring the steady decline in homicide victims and the improved arrest statistics. And, yes, one murder is too many.

But our city, however, hasn't had anything like Wichita's BTK murderer (bind, torture, kill) who terrorized that city for 30 years.


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