For the first time since the arrest of two Northeast High School teachers on charges of sexually abusing students, school administrators met with parents to defend their actions.
"What we can deal with as a school system is what we know, what we have proof of, and what we have a reasonable suspicion of," Principal Joseph J. Carducci told a group of about 400 parents who attended last night's meeting in the auditorium at Northeast. "When I had a reasonable suspicion, a phone call was made that day."
The first arrest came in April when Ronald Walter Price, a social studies teacher, drama and softball coach, was accused of having sex with a student. Two former students came forward after his arrest and also pressed charges. Mr. Price has admitted to affairs with several students over the years.
Then just a week ago, a science teacher, Laurie Susanne Cook, was charged with a fourth-degree sex offense, which involves touching. She has protested her innocence.
For most of the three-hour meeting, parents listened quietly as a parent representative read their written questions. Mr. Carducci, three administrators from the Board of Education and the school system's lawyer tried to answer the questions.
Mostly, parents sought reassurance their children were safe at school, and wanted to know how abuse could go undetected for so long as it apparently did in Mr. Price's case.
"How did no one find out about it until now? How did it happen that no teacher stepped forward and no administrator picked up on it? I can't answer that question," said P. Tyson Bennett, the lawyer for the Board of Education. "If this happened for as long as one teacher said it did, that means it goes back through maybe four principals, dozens of assistant principals, hundreds of teachers and thousands of students. Why no one stepped forward, I don't know. But I don't think you can hold one group responsible."
Mr. Carducci tried to reassure parents that counseling is still available to students who need it, and said he would try to emphasize positive aspects of the year at graduation.
He urged parents to get involved at the school, but said they shouldn't feel the need to do so to "monitor" the environment their children are in, as one questioner phrased it.
"Because of all the attention, . . . there might not be a safer school in the U.S. than this school right here," said Mr. Carducci.
Kenneth Lawson, an assistant school superintendent, repeated his belief that all procedures had been properly followed. "There was no way any person could have, in advance, thought about the problems we have gone through together -- the innuendoes, rumors, charges and admissions," he said.
Some parents have been upset that Mr. Carducci had not met with them earlier. Indeed, the meeting last night was not scheduled until last Friday, one day after the president of the County Council of PTAs had met with the state school superintendent.
"We were extremely wary of saying anything or doing anything that one, might interfere with the investigation, and two, might mess up any court activity," said Mr. Lawson. "Rather than do that, we instead decided not to say anything publicly."
Last night, the administrators refused to address specific aspects of the cases against either teacher, or to say directly what, if any, action the school system had taken prior to the recent arrests.
But if there was one point the parents and the school administrators agreed on, it was their complaints about media coverage.
A round of applause and cheers accompanied a question about how long the media would be allowed "to sensationalize the events" that have occurred at the school.
But one parent piped up and said, also to cheers, "Thank God for the media. Without them we wouldn't know anything."