David Gilchrist describe himself as a man with an a sterisk. Elementary-school teacher, high marks for classroom performance, parent involvement, but - see bottom of the page for asterisk explanation - a man once falsely accused of sexually assaulting an 8-year-old boy.
"I was innocent but I still lost part of my reputation and all of my savings. Yeh, I know there will always be doubts about me, I wanted to be known as an innovative teacher, not as someone arrested for sexual assault and found innocent."
Gilchrist is not the true name of the 27-year-old teacher accused last year of four assaults on the young student. He asked for anonymity. "The ones who know about it will recognize me, the ones who don't won't."
His episode began last fall, during the first weeks of the principal's office at lunch hour. He had no cause for concern, then. he had just been evaluated as a "highly exceptional teacher" and he was quite happy. "I felt like a pioneer," he remembers. He had returned to his old Montgomery County elementary school after college to become one of the first men to teach the lower grades and all he had received was praise from his colleagues and the parents of his students.
But waiting for him, with the principal, were two policemen and an arrest warrant, the piece of paper that inaugurated two months of nightmares and doubts that "made suicide a very tempting idea."
Gilchrist is one of eight Maryland suburban schoolteachers who have recently gone through the agony of being cleared of sexual assault charges. Sometimes the teachers were brought before judges to clear their names, as Gilchrist was, more often before school boards. And though they met ith severe social disgrace and the accompanying self-doubt and despair.
Just the hint that a teacher might have sexually abused a child arouses a fear in the community almost as primal and foreboding as incest; the fear explored in Lillian Hellman's play "The Children's Hour." It is a small but perceptively growing dilemma that schools have only recently come to acknowledge. In the last five years 18 teachers in Maryland have been accused - and cleared - of sexual assaults on their students.
Montgomery County now requires that glues partitions be placed in counseling offices in its public schools to avoid accusations made after closed-door conferences. More recently, Prince George's County officials have taken to warning new teachers against touching students at all - unless in self-defense.
"Even though the number isn't large, the cases are devastating," explained Susan W. Russell, a attorney for the Maryland State Teachers Association who has represented five of the teachers, "The pressure of going through such an ordeal shakes a teacher's faith in education and the community. It's far worse than most charges, it touches on morals, on taboos."
For teachers the false charges threaten the most vulnerable asset needed in their careers: The honorable reputation demanded of all who play a part in rearing youngsters. That was why Gilchrist's life took a tailspin after the lunch-hour arrest.
"I don't remember it well because I was totally in shock, completely stunned. I turned to the principal, and asked, 'What the hell is this'. One of the policemen said, 'Just get your coat and come quietly.' I got to the car, I was handcuffed and frisked and I said to myself all the things you read about, like I said. 'This must be a nightmare. I can't believe it.'"
Gilchrist is blon and square in build. He as never strayed far from Maryland or his home county. In blue jeans and an Oakland A's T-shirt, he could easily be a salesman in a shopping center or a bureaucrat on his way to a touch football game.
Except Gilchrist has twitches. he rolls his pudgy fingers into balls and his eyes redden as he tells his story; a nervous freckled young man.
"I don't like to think I was naive but I was scared out of my mind. I didn't know that to say to my father when I called him from the police station except that it was a sexual charge and I didn't have any part of it. When I got home and Mom asked me about it, they were both very suppective, I started yelling and I threw a chair across the room, went upstairs and cried."
Gilchrist moved out of his condominium and lived with his family throughout the two months that elapsed between the arrest and his acquittal. In December at a Montgomery County Court hearing prosecutors did not even present evidence against Gilchrist. They said the case was without prosecutorial merit, and the judge round not guilty.
But that wasn't the end of the nightmares - "I kept dreaming I was in a boat and my hand was being bit - something was b'ting me and pulling me in the water" - or extreme bitterness that led Gilchrist to Valium pills and thoughts of suicide.
Gilchrist survived the two months by organizing parents' meetings, finding a psychiatrist and leaning on a woman friend. He is a hetersexual, always has been. But the accusations bore into his intimate life. "I couldn't get into a serious relationship with her. I was sacred. When I was with her certain things would run through my mind and I couldn't respond to her. I was nervy."
He also was falling apart. "Not falling falling apart," he explained. "I knew I needed extra help because I had to prove myself again. I felt a lot of bitterness. I found out how difficult it is to fight even when you're right and you have good friends behind you."
Last December Gilchrist though he had won. The day before the scheduled hearing he found a note in the kitchen telling him to call his attorney. The prosecuting attorneys decided they didn't have a case, his attorney said. He would be able to walk through the hearing, assured of a not [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] to [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] foundation.
"I cried. My parents cried and that Saturday night we had a party. It wasn't until the next week that I figured out what this meant."
Gilchrist was to be transferred, out of his boyhood school to a different part of the county. He took it as punishment. "That did it. I wasn't vindicated. What this means is any parent or any child can accuse a teacher and get him transferred out of a school. I was innocent.
Gilchrist took the teaching assignment after appeals failed, but he also filed a lawsuit against the county schools asking for million-dollar retirbution. The case has yet to be heard.
Compassion, he claims, can be felt for all teachers save those accused of sex crimes. He points to a principal, F. Thornton Lauriat of Bethesda Chevy Chase High School, who pleaded no contest to a very minor shoplifting charge. Lauriat was on leave with salary for less than a month and was able to keep his post at the school.
"I'm innocent and I'm transferred," Gilchrist said.
A guidance counselor who met a peculiar death on a Montgomery County highway also had been transferred out of his school after he was found innocent of sexual assault charges.
Two years ago the counselor pulled his car off Interstate 270 and parked on the shoulder. He climbed out of his seat and walked into the darkness, straight toward an oncoming truck that killed him.
Not long after, an insurance agent paid a visit to John Fiscella, director of employee relations for the county's teachers' association. Could Fiscella tell the agent something about the guidance counselor's state of mind? That accident might have been a suicide, the agent said, and suicide doesn't pay any dividends.
"Well, the insurance company had to pay off but the counselor was depressed," Fiscella remembers. "It had preyed on, his mind that he had been falsely accused of fondling that girl . . . he'd lost all interest . . ."
Three years before his death, the counselor was found innocent of the "immorality" charges against him at a hearing conducted by local school authorities. The junior high girl's complaint that he had stripped her to the waist in a closed-door conference was not substantiated. But that wasn't enough, his friends say now, he suffered from the gossip and his family still suffers, so please won't use his name.
"It's on ironic conflict. We're supposed to be open, loving and humanistic figures, yet because one child misunderstands one gesture of a teacher, we all will worry about our behavior, be on guard," said Hank Heller, executive director of Montgomery County's Educator's Association.
"For the last few years we've have been telling new young teachers, especially bachelors, to keep their hands off the kids. They've got the most time and are the most devoted, the easiest targets. You can never tell what will ignite a student's fantasy," said Steve Bittner, assistant executive director of Prince George's County Educators Association.
Some blame television, others point to a student's need for a parent substitute. Most see this as a dilemma without a solution. The depth of the problem is difficult to measure since complaints are confidential and if a teacher resigns before the formal complaint is lodged, nothing will show up on public records.
But a case doesn't have to go as far as the courts or a full board hearing to damage an innocent teacher's reputation. A complaint to a principal, the initial stage in all assault charges has forced teachers out of schools and their professions in spite of their innocence.
"The rumor mill is the deadiest weapon against a teacher, it's like whiplash," said Bittner. He said Prince George's County lost a high-school teacher last year who fell victim to a 16-year-old girls fantasy. it was the teacher's first year in the profession, he was only 23 years old, and the young girl had a crush on him - nothing unusual. But one day a group of students approached the teacher asking him why he was "making it with the young girl," Bittner remembers.
Later the principal asked the same question. Apparently the rumor, begun by the enamored student herself, had reached her parents. When they asked her about the liaison, she said the teacher had forced her to have sex with him.
The parents complained to the principal and an investigation ensued. Nothing came of it after a conference cleared the teacher. But the teacher quit, entirely. "He just said that the student had made his life miserable and he wasn't going to go through that again," Bittner said.
It is not only suburban students who falsely charge their teachers. Susan Russell recently successfully defended an elderly gentelman in a rural Maryland county who was accused of making homosexual advances.
"He was absolutely horrified by the whole experience. Times had changed too much in the classroom for him, he lived in a small community and he thought students didn't even think along those lines," Russell said. "He went into retirement early."
Russell agrees with the teacher she defended: children don't naturally dream up false accusations, she contends, but learn such mischief from television.
"With young children, sometimes too much knowledge is a bad thing. I can't enter their minds and say that television is the root of some of their confused ideas, but patterns of accusation sometimes follow television programs that show the kids how they can get their teachers in trouble," she said.
Other experts say that youngsters may pick up the ideas from pornography or from stolen glimpses of adults.
H. Tex Hughes, the Juvenile Court Haison for prince George's County schools for the past 14 years, sees the root cause as ancient and unavoidable.
"Why does a stepdaughter bring false charges of sexual abuse against her stepfather? You want to get somebody, you figure out the best way to do it," he said. "Sexual provocation, that hasn't changed a bit."
Besides the hardships imposed on teachers falsely accused of sexually abusing their charges, this phenomenon has brought a new self-imposed inhibition on the profession at large.
In Montgomery County a junior-high-school teacher, "a teddy bear of a man" over 6 feet 4 and weighting 280 pounds took a course to learn "nonverbal communication." He wanted to show his concern for students beyond passing out grades, Fiscella said. The teacher, after the course, took to shaking students' hands when they did well and slapping them on the shoulders. Soon he was accused of sexual abuse for just those acts.
"Fortunately, he saw the humor in the whole thing and didn't take it badly," Fiscella said. "He was psychologically strong enough, one of the rare ones."