Theories Compete as D.C. School Students Testify at Sexual Assault Trial

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Did Barry Harrison, a counselor with the mentoring group Peaceoholics assigned to work with troubled students at the District's Spingarn High School, use his position to sexually assault a 15-year-old female student?

Or was Harrison, who served time more than 20 years ago for murder and was arrested last year for drug possession, a prime target of revenge for the girl and her friends after Harrison disciplined them for fighting and cutting classes?

Those were the portraits of Harrison presented Tuesday to a jury of six men and eight women in D.C. Superior Court during the first day of testimony in the trial. Police arrested Harrison, 50, after the student alleged that he kissed and fondled her April 14 in the basement of Spingarn, on Benning Road NE. Harrison, of District Heights, has been in D.C. jail since the arrest. He has been charged with five counts of assault and sexual abuse of a child with special circumstances because of the age of the alleged victim.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward O'Connell told the jury that Harrison used his position as a mentor and hall monitor to prey on the girl. O'Connell also said Harrison made inappropriate sexual remarks to at least two of the alleged victim's female classmates before the April incident.

But Harrison's attorney, Robert Mance, argued that the accused is a victim himself, the object of a scheme hatched by the teenager and her friends to have Harrison kicked out of the school where he had worked for about eight days.

Harrison's wife and supporters say his past misdeeds should have no bearing on the allegations against him. In an interview last week, Peaceoholics co-founder Ronald Moten said the alleged victim and her classmates were "making the whole thing up."

The case has become high-profile because Peaceoholics, which works to quash neighborhood disagreements among teens, has received high praise from members of the D.C. Council and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). Since its creation four years ago, the group has received about $7.6 million in funding, largely from city contracts and grants.

Moten said he hired Harrison in March based on referrals, including one from Harrison's brother, Amin Muslim, who works on the staff of council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7). "He had good references," he said.

But Harrison also had an extensive criminal history. In 1978, he was convicted of armed robbery in Prince George's County. In 1984, he was convicted of first-degree felony murder in the shooting and beating deaths of two men in the District. Last year, after his release from prison and while on probation, Harrison was arrested and pleaded guilty to cocaine possession.

Moten said that he conducted a criminal background check on his new employee but that Harrison's murder charge was not on the D.C. police criminal background report, which goes back only 10 years. As a result of the incident, Moten said, he now uses more comprehensive FBI criminal history checks on employees who work with youths.

D.C. public schools have also enhanced their screening procedures for adults who work with students, spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway said. In an e-mail, Calloway said the schools have since "strengthened" their screening process, which includes criminal background checks, for employees and volunteers who "have unsupervised access to children."

During the trial, two of the alleged victim's classmates testified that they met Harrison during an intervention at the school after a fight between the girls. Both girls testified that Harrison seemed nice and called them at their homes and on their cellphones to make sure they got up for school and to gauge how their day was going. The girls said Harrison, who worked as a hall monitor at the school, told them about his criminal history and that he had spent time in jail.

A day or so before the alleged assault, one of the friends said, Harrison complimented her on her breasts and told her that he thought of her often when he was home. The other friend said Harrison asked for a kiss and told another girl that she needed a man in her life. Both girls said they ignored the statements.

The alleged victim, now 16, told the jury that Harrison kissed her and forced her to touch his groin. At times during her testimony, she wiped her face and eyes with a tissue. She also told the prosecutor that she sent a text message to one of her friends minutes after the incident and that she was "too scared" to tell a teacher or one of the police officers who worked in the school.

But under cross-examination, Mance produced her telephone records, which showed that the only record of a text to her friend was two hours later, when the girls were being interviewed separately at police headquarters. The victim said she was having trouble with her phone repeatedly cutting off.

After Judge Michael L. Rankin concluded the proceedings for the day, the alleged victim stood in the hallway crying in the arms of one of her teenage friends. Several jurors watched as they exited the courthouse.

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