Washington Post

The legacy of radical feminism: "Everyone thought it would be cool"

Cleared gym teacher still has questions

By Brigid Schulte Washington Post, 3/21/2000

Just after 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 16, gym teacher Ronald Heller was called to his principal's office. He was shown written statements from several sixth-grade pupils saying they had seen him in the girls' locker room, hugging one girl in her bra and panties, slapping another on her behind and calling yet another ''hot sexy mama.''

The wind went out of him.

''I did not do this,'' Heller, 54, said. ''This is a lie.''

He looked at the names - six girls and a boy. Only two were in his class. The rest he didn't even know.

The principal of Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown, Md., handed Heller a letter informing him that he was suspended with pay, effective immediately. He was given 15 minutes to leave the school.

''I was flabbergasted,'' said Heller, a teacher and coach for 32 years. ''I thought it was all a big mistake and that I'd be back at work by Friday.''

For nearly a month, he sat at home, doing yard work and watching ''SportsCenter,'' waiting for Montgomery County, Md., police to investigate. No one from the school could talk to him. And he had to get permission from the central office every time he left home. ''I felt like I was on house arrest,'' he said. He couldn't sleep. He lost weight.

For nearly a month, the girls stuck to their story - even embellished it. One told police she remembered he had brushed her breast when he was taking a ball from her. One said he had given them a group hug outside the locker room.

But with each flourish, investigators were becoming more suspicious. Holes in the once-airtight story started appearing. Finally, one pupil - the boy - confessed. They had made it all up. Then, one by one, the girls recanted.

On March 13, the six girls, whose names police are withholding because they are juveniles, were arrested for making false statements to the police and suspended from school for 10 days. The boy was suspended but not arrested.

Heller was exonerated and returned to school March 14 to an avalanche of flowers, letters, e-mails, cards, and hugs from colleagues.

This much is true: The pupils lied. Heller's life and reputation were nearly ruined. But what might never be known is this: Why did a group of 11- and 12-year-olds make up such a vicious story about a teacher they didn't know?

One of the six girls wears a Tigger watch. She has long, manicured nails, painted white. She sleeps on purple flowered sheets with a cat named George. Posters of stuffed teddy bears and glossy magazine pages of the pop group 'N Sync adorn her walls.

Until now, the worst thing she had lied about was when she lent her younger sister her Barbies but then told her father the sister took them. She is in honors classes and was a straight-A student until the Big Lie. Now she is barely making C's.

This girl, whose family agreed to let her speak to The Washington Post only if she remained anonymous, acknowledged she does not really know Heller. Sometimes he helps out in her physical education class, when she and her clique of friends like to sit around and talk, and he tries to get them involved in sports. And she doesn't like that.

The week of Feb. 14, Heller disciplined two of her friends - a boy and a girl - for bad sportsmanship, the boy for taunting other children and the girl for giving up and pouting when her team began to lose. He set up a meeting with them two days later to talk to the school counselor about their behavior.

Her friends were angry. One said she was going to tell the counselor that Heller entered the girls' locker room and that she had heard that he touched girls' behinds.

The morning of Feb. 16 was cold. The girl's mother drives a school bus and she and her friends gather on it before school. That morning, the talk was all about Mr. Heller in the girls' locker room. The girl's mother overheard them. ''Why didn't you ever tell me this was happening?'' she asked her daughter, then marched the girls into the counselor's office to make a report.

As the girls got off the bus, they started to giggle nervously. One said, ''Oh my God.'' But instead of telling the counselor that they were just repeating rumors, they decided to say it happened.

''We thought it would be fun,'' the girl said, sitting in the living room of her parents' town home. ''The whole idea of being the center of attention, going to the office and everyone in school knowing. Everyone thought it would be cool.''

And, she said, they thought that would be the end of it.

But when she got home from school that day, Detective Errol Birch, with the Montgomery County Police Department's pedophile unit, was waiting for her. She decided to lie.

''We didn't think it would get so big, like the police involved,'' she said. ''It all happened so quick. We wanted to keep going because we didn't want to get in trouble.''

Still, when Birch interviewed her and the other girls again, on Feb. 23, she lied again. And added more details. ''Everyone made more stuff up,'' she said. ''They started just throwing things in.''

By that time, police had doubts. The girls said they had complained to two female gym teachers. Interviews proved that was not true. Even confronted with that, ''they stuck to their guns,'' Birch said. ''They seemed credible.''

By this time, some girls weren't speaking to one another. Some wanted to tell the truth. Others were afraid. This girl was torn. ''I didn't want to get my friends in trouble,'' the girl said. ''I didn't want them to be mad at me.''

Kevin P. Dwyer, president of the National Association of School Psychologists, said early adolescence is an age where the not-quite-child, not-quite-woman is given to lying, saying hurtful things about other girls to secure her own place in an increasingly important social pecking order.

''They editorialize and massage the truth. And some are clearly vicious lies,'' he said. ''At this age, they're self-absorbed, they're clumsy, they don't think things through or see long-term effects. And they're desperately in need of having a peer group they can identify with. They'd do anything to keep from being rejected from their circle.''

On March 1, police spoke to the boy for the first time. He said it had gone too far and it was time to stop. Nothing was true. The boy was then suspended.

On March 8, Miles Alban, a retired Montgomery County police officer who is an investigator for the school system, met with four of the girls.

Alban told the one girl: ''This is serious business and it's going to have some serious consequences. If it didn't happen, tell me now. Let's end it.''

Without hesitation, she said, ''It never happened,'' and began to cry. In subsequent interviews, each girl recanted within minutes.

In the car with her father, the still-sobbing girl blurted out, ''I thought I was going to hell.''

When Ron Heller interviewed at Roberto Clemente five years ago, he knew times had changed. High-profile sex-abuse cases and a flood of false accusations of sexual misconduct had made teachers more careful - paranoid even - that a hug, a pat, any touching of a pupil could be misinterpreted.

He had three rules: no gymnastics, no coed wrestling, and no class discussions during sex education.

For 32 years, he had been careful. Like other teachers, he makes sure he is never alone with a pupil and always leaves a door open when meeting with one. He has been to the trainings. He knows the rules. And still, he suffered every teacher's worst nightmare.

The worst part is that youngsters who did not even know him had the power to turn his life upside down.

By Friday, March 10, it was over. All seven pupils had owned up to the lie. And the school system was beginning the paperwork so he could return to school.

''They come,'' he said, ''I leave.''

The girl wants the world to know she is not a bad person: ''What I did was wrong. I can't change what happened. I just want to get back to normal, get back to my life, and everybody to forget about it.''

As punishment while she is suspended, the girl has to do the dishes and clean up around the house more.

The girl has written letters of apology to Heller and everyone involved. But her parents are afraid to send Heller's note, scared that it could be used against them if Heller sues.

This story ran on page A03 of the Boston Globe on 3/21/2000.

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