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Sixth-Graders Who Accused Teacher of Fondling Charged in Hoax

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By Brigid Schulte and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 14, 2000; Page A01

The sixth-grade girls were angry at their gym teacher. He'd yelled at them for bad sportsmanship in front of the whole class. They wanted to get even. So they said he'd stared at their breasts and fondled them in the locker room.

Within hours, the Montgomery County teacher, Ronald Heller, was suspended with pay and ordered to leave the school.

But the charges weren't true.

Yesterday, nearly a month after making up the story--then later recanting in tears--six girls and a boy were arrested and charged as juveniles with making false statements to police. For an adult, the penalty for such a crime is a $500 fine or six months in jail; for a juvenile, there's more discretion.

Their parents brought the students, described by police as honor students and "good kids" at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown, to the police department's family services division in Wheaton. Police fingerprinted, photographed, booked, then released them to their parents.

The students, whose names were not released because they are juveniles, have been suspended from school for 10 days, and further punishment is being discussed, school officials said.

Heller, a stocky man in his fifties who has coached several sports teams in his 32-year career, has been reinstated and was expected to return to teaching today. "I don't want to talk about it," he said, standing outside his Gaithersburg home. "I knew I was right all along."

In a letter sent home with students yesterday, Principal Rosalva Rosas said Heller has been "fully exonerated" and would be "welcomed as a friend and colleague."

"I want to emphasize how terrible the consequences have been because of the lies and the subsequent rumors," the principal wrote in the letter. "The teacher suffered the personal and professional effects of false allegations."

Students make up stories all the time, educators say, for lots of reasons. Phony 911 calls. Prank bomb threats. And while fibs generally haven't led to arrests, some courts are becoming more inclined to punish children for making up stories.

In Anne Arundel County, several children as young as 8 were arrested for sending notes and warning of nonexistent bombs. One 13-year-old boy was sentenced to two weeks of house arrest and 40 hours of community service for making a bomb threat.

Prosecutors worry that these arrests might make children who are victims of sexual abuse afraid to report it.

"But this was a rare case. These kids maliciously conspired, police believed and acted upon it, and someone's reputation was tarnished," said Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, who decided to bring charges. "The question is, do you put 11- and 12-year-olds in jail for this? Probably not.

"But you certainly want to hold them accountable and understand what they did was wrong," he said. "They owe something to the teacher."

What they owe him is his reputation, said Heller's attorney, Paul F. Kemp. Yet, because of the nature of sexual-misconduct charges, they can't ever fully restore that.

"When they made the charge, that's about 80 percent of the damage to your reputation right there," Kemp said. "Because even if you're found innocent, people will assume you got off on a technicality. Or that there's something there when there's not."

Heller has spent every day since Feb. 16, when he was suspended, "sitting at home, staring at the walls and wondering how he got in the middle of this maelstrom," Kemp said.

Kemp said it started in early February. Heller, known to students as a strict disciplinarian, yelled at several for mouthing off during an intramural game. Feeling humiliated, they wanted revenge.

So six girls and a boy concocted the story that Heller had followed the girls into the locker room, hugged them, touched them and grabbed at least one girl's buttock.

They went to the school counselor with the story. School officials ordered Heller off school property and told him not to return until police investigated the charges.

While the details were vague, the students' stories seemed airtight at first, police said.

"These were all honor roll students, very involved in the school. We had no reason to doubt them," said Sgt. Richard Cage, investigative supervisor with the family services division. "The whole thing seems so bizarre."

But slowly, under questioning, their story began to fall apart. The boy broke first, admitting they had made the whole thing up.

"We let them know that these are serious accusations, could cost a person their position and could lead to criminal charges," said Stan Schaub, head of human resources for the school system. "I just don't think he wanted that on his head."

One by one, the students recanted the story. Last week, when Heller offered to take a lie detector test to prove his innocence, police told him the investigation was over. The students lied.

"The question is, what motivated them to do this, and do they understand the ramifications of it, because you're dealing with a real person's life," Gansler said. "The irony is, here children are attempting to ruin his reputation for no reason, for nothing. And they almost got away with it."

Such accusations are a teacher's nightmare and are all too frequent, teachers union officials say.

"It's a regular occurrence that students are charging teachers with some form of abuse, whether it be physical or sexual," Susan Russell, the chief lawyer for the Maryland State Teachers Association, which represents 53,000 teachers statewide, said yesterday.

"Literally, we get a phone call every day, sometimes three or four," from teachers reporting accusations, she said. Most often, she said, the accusations are not true.

She said students often don't realize the gravity of what they're doing. "Kids haven't developed their full ethical code," she said. And "times have changed. There's less respect for elders in general, parents, teachers."

In one of the worst such cases in recent years, a Chicago elementary school student in 1994 paid $1 bribes to fellow students to accuse a substitute teacher of abuse. The teacher was later cleared.

But the damage often lingers.

"What shouldn't be minimized is that a teacher's reputation is everything," said Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, which represents 9,500 county teachers. "Typically what happens is a teacher is immediately put on leave. So there's an atmosphere . . . that this teacher must have done something."

Across the country, teachers are taking precautions to avoid abuse charges. In some places, teachers now hesitate to hug students.

"You hear teachers saying they don't touch kids anymore, they don't hug kids, they don't stay in a closed room by themselves with a student. It's something they keep in the back of their minds," said Julie Underwood, general counsel of the National School Boards Association.

"Even if it were to happen very infrequently, teachers are still going to be worried about it because it's such a horrific thing to happen in your career."

Staff writer Amy Argetsinger and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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