SEX EDUCATION

NO ONE IN FLAGSTAFF COULD BELIEVE THE CHARGES AGAINST THE TOWN'S FAVORITE MUSIC TEACHER. THEY DIDN'T KNOW WHAT HAD HAPPENED IN MESA.

Part I of "Sex Education" (October 28) told how negligence by those who run Arizona's public schools can turn kids into prey for molesting teachers.

The letter to the editor of the Flagstaff daily newspaper pleaded for support of popular Northern Arizona University administrator Ralston Pitts. It asked "the many people . . . who have benefited from his devotion to music education" to think about one of the city's most respected citizens, a man who had conducted church youth choirs and given private music lessons for years:

"Ask yourselves whether in your experience there has ever been even a hint of sexual misconduct on his part," the letter concluded.

The letter was written after a page-one story in the Arizona Daily Sun last July 31 revealed that Flagstaff police were investigating Pitts for allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor. NAU had suspended the 57-year-old director of its School of Performing Arts, the stories said.

Then, on October 8, came the bombshell. A Coconino County grand jury indicted Pitts on 32 counts of having sexual relations with a music student--a 16-year-old girl--from the time she was 9.

What isn't known--not by the letter writers, by the people at the university who hired him, or by the parents of the children he taught--was that Ralston Pitts had allegedly done the same thing to a girl when he was a schoolteacher in Mesa years earlier.

New Times learned of Pitts' past through numerous interviews and public records. While the revelations are devastating to Pitts, they are equally damning to the former members of the Mesa school board and key district administrators.

Confronted in 1977 with allegations of Pitts' sexual involvement with a teenager, the board took no action. Instead, it allowed Pitts to quietly resign. No one in the school district notified the police about the allegations, which had been detailed in a startling letter to the board from the girl's parents.

But that wasn't the worst of Pitts' hush-hush resignation. Then-superintendent George Smith, the Mesa district's top official at the time, wrote a positive letter of recommendation for Pitts after the school board had allowed him to quit.

The glowing recommendation allowed Pitts' career in education to prosper--in 1986, he became the first black to head an academic department at NAU. The letter also enabled Pitts to maintain trusted access to youngsters through schools and churches.

The criminal statute of limitations in the Mesa case has long since passed. But prosecutors have filed charges in Flagstaff against Ralston Pitts under the state's Dangerous Crimes Against Children laws. Those laws command lengthy mandatory prison terms upon conviction.

Released on $100,000 bond awaiting trial, Pitts is facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison if convicted. He declined interviews on the advice of his attorney, but in court proceedings has denied any wrongdoing. "The minute I heard it had happened again in Flagstaff," says former Mesa school-board member John Crandall, "I thought back to what we had done and said, 'Oh, no.'" Crandall, a Mesa dentist, regrets the board's failure to pursue Pitts. "Sometimes school boards take the easiest way out. But I think if we knew as much then as we know now about the recidivism rate in such things, we wouldn't have let happen what we let happen."

@rule:
@body:Mesa in the late 1970s was a smaller and more homogeneous city than it is today. For one thing, its city government and the school district administration were almost exclusively dominated by white men who belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As a black, single man, Ralston Pitts was an anomaly in that Mesa of old. Born in Iowa City, Iowa, Pitts and his middle-class family had moved to Tucson when he was a boy. He later graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in music.

His first teaching job after college was in the Parker school district on the California border. Then, in 1965, Pitts became one of the first blacks hired to teach in the Mesa Unified School District. After six successful years as a teacher and band director at Carson Junior High, Pitts was promoted in 1971 to be the district's director of music education.

But he didn't become a pencil-wielding bureaucrat. He continued to direct a high school band, worked with local church groups and gave private music lessons.

Pitts was a well-liked figure around Mesa, a genteel, erudite man who made his predominantly white peers and students--many of whom had had little previous contact with a black person--feel comfortable. Parents in the conservative East Valley community trusted Pitts implicitly; most allowed their children to attend the students-only swimming parties he threw.

Many in Mesa refuse to believe the Ralston Pitts they knew was capable of doing what authorities say he did. "He was a kind, gentle soul," says a Mesa school principal, who requested anonymity "because I don't want to look like I'm defending a child molester." "But I just can't see it," he adds.

It was in this unquestioning milieu that Pitts allegedly seduced his Mesa victim, who asked not to be identified. Flagstaff police located "Janice Johnson" last summer after their investigation of Pitts led back to Mesa. She tells New Times in a telephone interview she had no idea Pitts was being investigated until then.

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