Carter says he 'did nothing wrong'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

C. Berry Carter II, after nearly four decades devoted to the Anne Arundel County school system, has come to terms with his professional death.

"People sent me flowers like I had died," Mr. Carter said with a smile last week. "But as I told one friend, I did die -- professionally. Fortunately, there's life after the Board of Education. And I have two file folders full of letters from people who know I did nothing wrong."

In the months before Mr. Carter's resignation in October as superintendent of the 68,000-student school system, the startling answers to one question rocked the county: How could a popular teacher such as Ronald W. Price have sex with students at Northeast High School for more than 20 years without anyone knowing?

County residents were further astounded when Price confessed to having sex with students on "Geraldo!" and was convicted of )) three counts of child sex abuse and sentenced to 26 years in prison.

In three separate reports, independent investigators concluded that school officials knew what Price was doing -- and that he wasn't the only teacher taking sexual liberties with students. Chief among those officials was Mr. Carter, who had been deputy superintendent for 18 years before his promotion to the top spot in July 1992. Mr. Carter denied that he knew about Price's activities until the teacher was arrested in April.

The most damaging findings were contained in a report prepared for the school system by Washington lawyer Alan I. Baron. In it, Mr. Carter was cited for setting up a system in which suspected child abuse cases were investigated by school system sleuths instead of being turned over to police or the county Department of Social Services. Allegations were often dropped as teachers' denials were accepted at face value.

During a four-hour interview last week, the former school superintendent spoke publicly for the first time since his October resignation.

He has come to terms with the events of last year but rejects the pariah's image that Mr. Baron and others seem to have crafted for him.

"This is a Navy town. It happened on my watch, and I accept that responsibility," Mr. Carter said. "But to say it was the school system's 'dirty little secret' really upsets me. There was no intent to cover up anything, despite what Mr. Baron says."

He continued, "I wouldn't have endangered the welfare of a kid for the welfare of an institution."

The 38-year veteran of the school system said child abuse is viewed in a different light because of the "political correctness of the times." The definition of the legal term "reason to believe" has changed. In the past, Mr. Carter said, school officials were urged to gather as many facts as possible before turning a case over to the county Department of Social Services. Since Price's arrest, he pointed out, the merest whisper of impropriety on the part of a teacher is reported.

"To say I fostered an atmosphere to hide child abuse -- I resent the fact that Mr. Baron has substituted his judgment for what has gradually changed over time," Mr. Carter said.

For years, he said, the emphasis at educational and legal conventions was on "due process" -- for teachers. "If police and social services did an investigation and the matter was dropped, and if we have no further information, then on what basis do you move against the teacher?" Mr. Carter asked.

Often, he said, administrators at school system headquarters in Annapolis would get tips on teachers who allegedly were abusing students. "Sometimes a parent would call and say, 'My daughter says she's having a relationship with her teacher,' " Mr. Carter said. "And we'd say, 'Would you be willing to testify and have her testify?' and the mother would say, 'No, you handle it.' So what do you do?"

What he usually did, he said, was call the teacher in for a chat with him and the special assistant to the superintendent who'd investigated the case, "and we'd pretend we knew more than we did and get them to resign. In most cases, they did."

One investigators' report urged the county school board to create a policy explicitly stating that teachers shouldn't date or have sex with their students.

Mr. Carter, however, scoffed at the notion of putting in writing what should be obvious to anyone. "We don't have a policy saying teachers shouldn't murder students either," he said.

"Do I think we'd behave differently post-Price than pre-Price? Absolutely," he continued. "I'm not trying to say Price didn't fool us all. He fooled principals and parents and kids for years -- he was a drama coach. We've been blamed for not training teachers enough [to recognize abuse]. We may not have done enough, but we've done more than anyone else in the state."

After a 1985 incident in which he publicly apologized for the school system's failure to report a child abuse case and vowed to make changes, Mr. Carter authored a document that translated policies into everyday terms easily understood by principals.

The so-called HELP manual included the relevant parts of the child abuse reporting law. Its forward, however, was criticized by Mr. Baron for encouraging principals to exercise judgment in deciding when cases should be reported.

But Mr. Carter pointed out that the HELP manual was reviewed by police agencies and the state's attorney's office before it was distributed, and no one who saw it criticized the wording.

As for how school principals interpreted their instructions, Mr. Carter asked, "When you delegate authority, what else are you supposed to do? Mr. Baron makes it sound like I sat around for tTC 18 years with nothing else to do but handle these cases. I had much to do."

And by the accounts of various people who knew him, Mr. Carter accomplished a lot -- including garnering the largest capital budget ever for the school system last year.

But in a year that should have been a crowning achievement, having ascended to the chief's job he'd been refused three times earlier, Mr. Carter watched as his career went down in flames -- not all of them kindled by events at Northeast High School.

"My problems with the board began long before Ron Price was arrested," he said ruefully. "If I had to do it all over again, I probably wouldn't have taken the [superintendent's] job."

The day after he was appointed, the makeup of the board changed, and he lost some of his chief supporters.

By Easter last year, Mr. Carter had made up his mind to resign. He'd even sent then-board President Vincent O. Leggett a letter apologizing for his differences with the board and offering to work them out. In the letter, a copy of which he supplied to The Sun, Mr. Carter asked the board to allow him to select his staff and give them a reasonable time to carry out their mission.

"If at the end of that time, a majority of the board is dissatisfied with the results, I will retire and walk away from the school system with all the grace that I can muster," he wrote.

Although he got no response from the board, Mr. Carter still was prepared to resign -- until the state budget crisis threatened to put the school system in the red and Price's arrest threatened to put it in the tabloids.

"I didn't want to look like I was running away from my responsibilities," Mr. Carter said.

The debacle over Northeast that ensued was difficult for his family to accept.

"My family thinks that if you do a good job for a long time, you should go out with the band playing, carried out on everyone's shoulders," Mr. Carter said. "But there is life after the Board of Education."

Lately he's been taking morning walks around his neighborhood -- possibly to avoid the noise from renovations to his home.

And he's been spending the afternoons riding bikes with his 6-year-old grandson, Seabrooke.

"He's the light of my life," Mr. Carter said. "I missed out on spending time with my own children when they were growing up because I was usually out working three or four nights a week. The only night I was home was Friday night. I don't want to miss out again with my grandkids."

He says his family has started to recover. The support of friends, former students and co-workers have helped. "I'm at peace with myself. I know I did nothing wrong," Mr. Carter said. "And the ones who don't know that, well, I don't think I'll ever convince them."

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