Montana: Three angry letters
1. Letter to Governor Stan Stephens from J. Riak
September 28, 1989
Stan Stephens, Governor
Helena, MT 59620
Dear Governor Stephens:
If a citizen had evidence that schoolchildren daily traveled in a public school bus that had faulty brakes and bald tires, what would you advise him to do? Should he report the problem to the responsible authority? Should he expect prompt action to protect the children? Should he be expected to let his child ride that bus in its unsafe condition? The answers to these admittedly rhetorical questions are obvious.
Now consider an analogous situation. I will list some of the alleged behaviors of a .... grade public school teacher, presently employed in the .......... Consolidated School District #...., in the state of Montana. He is alleged to have:
- Grabbed a child and slammed him against the lockers,
- pulled children across his desk and paddled them in full view of the class,
- grabbed a child by the hair and banged his head against the lockers,
- flung a child down a stairway,
- grabbed a child and pinned him against the wall by the neck,
- slapped a child in the face, leaving a hand print which lasted the day,
- punched a child in the back of the head with a closed fist,
- slam-dunked a child into his desk and then shoved the desk across the floor into the wall,
- picked a child up by the neck and held him off the floor,
- picked a child (third grade boy) up in the air and drop-kicked him,
- spanked an entire gym class (second graders),
- called children "dummies," and told children "You stink",
- punished a child by not letting him go to the toilet,
- suggested to his class that it use a particular student's ID card as a target for darts,
- become hysterical, cried and had screaming tantrums in front of his class.
This alleged misconduct reaches back at least ten years according to our informants. During this time, and up until the present, this teacher's superiors have been well aware of his behavior. Complaints from parents have been frequent. His colleagues know about his problems. The school board knows. Law enforcement knows. Public health authorities know. State education authorities know. The school's insurance carrier knows. And of course, the children know -- they have known from the start.
In an extraordinary letter, dated July 26 1989, from Madison County Attorney Loren Tucker to Montana Attorney General Marc Racicot, he says "...students have a widespread belief that they are subject to pervasive physical handling... I am not persuaded that it is fair to prosecute [the teacher] for the consequences of a pervasive situation which has been condoned by the school district over a period of time..."
In an equally extraordinary letter, of August 3, 1989, from the Montana Attorney General Marc Racicot to a parent, he explains that "...elements of an assault exist with one or more of the alleged incidents...[but] the fact that the school district seems to have at least acknowledged and permitted corporal discipline for a long period of time, works considerable difficulty upon a prosecution effort to convict...The consequential aspects of a prosecution to the children, the school system and the community are considerable... A trial would serve to exacerbate these effects...and the resulting harm to the ongoing operations of the school would be significant..."
We will not attempt to speculate what goes on in the minds of those who are responsible for the safety of the schoolchildren and for upholding their fundamental right not to be assaulted. But we must address the state of moral paralysis that apparently afflicts those in charge. We must voice our rejection of the specious, self-serving, hypocritical reasoning whereby they disguise their refusal to defend children as being in the children's and the community's best interest. It is impossible, moreover, to know who is in charge. Law enforcement graciously defers to the prevailing wisdom of the schools and the schools interpret this as a license to beat kids!
If the same official indifference that currently applies to battery of schoolchildren were extended to include battery of adults, Montana's courts and prisons would be relieved of one of their principal functions. The most dangerous types of individuals would run free.
Anyone who is even superficially informed about child development knows that schoolchildren who have been victimized in the ways described above will pay a high price in terms of their psychological, social and academic development. Even children who have only witnessed such abuse are also its victims. The negative lesson children absorb when they see their peers mistreated by an authority figure can have a life-long effect. In fact, some victims may subsequently adopt these behaviors because they have been repeatedly shown the example.
The effect also reaches beyond the particular classroom, even beyond the school. The morale of the entire teaching staff suffers. The good teachers find it harder to maintain a high standard when the prevailing standard is low. Public respect for teachers diminishes as does its trust in and support for public education generally.
There is another victim who must not be overlooked: the problem teacher himself. It seems, in this case as in virtually all the others we know about, that his colleagues and superiors have failed to counsel him how to deal with his shortcomings, but mainly to deny them, invent alibis and place the blame elsewhere. While these so-called friends may believe they are shielding him (and themselves), actually they have abandoned him and left him trapped within his own barricades. He perhaps is the most unfortunate victim of all.
We have two principal motives for presenting this information to you and to the copy addressees. 1) We want to establish as a matter of public record that all school authorities, directly and indirectly responsible for the safety of children served by the .......... Consolidated School District #...., have been fully apprised of the dangers there. If they continue to fail to act, then they must bear full responsibility. They will never be able to claim that they were unaware of the serious long-term harm suffered by many children, of the ongoing danger within their school and of the potential for tragedy. 2) We hope that this letter will help prompt at least one of its readers who is in a position of responsibility to take the lead by acting responsibly.
cc: Secretary of Education, Lauro Cavazos, Montana Attorney Gen. Racicot, Madison County Attorney Loren Tucker, local and state education officials, school trustees, school board members, child abuse prevention agencies in Montana, members of the media in Montana and other interested parties.
2. A response from Marc Racicot, Attorney General State of Montana
Dear Mr. Riak:
I am writing in response to your letter to Governor Stan Stephens of September 28, 1989 which was copied to me and various others.
You indicate that one of your concerns in writing Governor Stephens is to prompt one in a position of responsibility to act responsibly. Let me respond by pointing out that those involved in the investigative aspects of this situation from .......... and this office did indeed act responsibly and carefully during a very difficult investigation. The purpose of our involvement was not to take sides in an already ugly situation fueled by a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric, but to analyze the potential for effective prosecution. This was done by trained and experienced prosecutors in the context of numerous interviews and hours of file review. The conclusions reached were based upon the potential evidence available and the ethical considerations that must be examined in assessing the prosecutorial propriety of any case.
You apparently have copies of Mr. Tucker's letter to me and mine to Ms. Eileen White, both of which you have chosen to quote out of context. You also list a series of alleged acts which were simply not substantiated by any responsible investigation. I can assure you that those of us involved in the criminal justice system in this state are acutely aware of our responsibilities of child protection. We welcome and gladly fulfill these responsibilities to the fullest extent of our authority, working closely all the while with legitimate child protection agencies. In this regard, we are keenly aware of the emotional trauma suffered by any child in an abusive situation. We are aware too that the history of the discipline situation in .......... is such that substantial changes need to be considered. We have suggested this course of action and have been assured that changes are contemplated. The fact is, however, that corporal punishment does not, per se, constitute assault under the law in Montana and the utilization of physical discipline does not necessarily constitute a criminal act.
Unfortunately Mr. Riak, it appears that the only irresponsibility demonstrated in this matter is yours for taking statements out of context and offering up ill-informed and inappropriate conclusions.
cc: Governor Stephens w/enc.
3. A response from Chronister, Driscol & Moreen, Attorneys at Law,
December 11, 1989
Dear Mr. Riak:
Our law firm represents the .... grade teacher in ............. Consolidated School District .... We are in receipt of a copy of your letter to Governor Stan Stephens dated September 28, 1989 which you have seen fit to distribute widely. The existence and distribution of this letter belies your alleged purpose in preparing the letter - to get someone to act responsibly. Your letter is irresponsible and scurrilous. Apparently you have spent no time investigating the facts you allege to relay. Your carefully chosen phrases from the Attorney General's and the County Attorney's correspondence are taken out of context and intentionally misinterpreted. The only possible intent is to mislead those to whom you sent the letter.
As the Attorney General said in his letter to you, the list of alleged acts are unsubstantiated. Your use of this list of unsubstantiated allegations to impugn and libel our client without investigating the matter to discover the true story, is most irresponsible. Had you done any checking of the facts you would have discovered there are questions as to the motives of this teacher's attackers; that this group is on a mission of retribution without foundation; that this group is a vocal minority whose views and claims have not been accepted by the rest of the community. This is clearly evidenced in the results of the most recent school board election. This group's candidates lost decisively.
If your organization is something more than a shell for your own personal agenda, it will no doubt reconsider your intemperate and libelous letter and mail a letter of retraction to all those persons to whom you mailed the original letter. On behalf of our client, we request you do so without delay.
CHRONISTER, DRISCOLL & MOREEN
By: Dennis Moreen
JDM: j m
Governor Stan Stevens
Attorney General Marc Racicot