By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"It just means that in my professional judgment, we couldn't make it stick."
Officially, the case was closed. And within two weeks after the county decided it didn't have enough evidence to arrest and prosecute David, the Johnsons' "worst nightmare" became a reality. David stopped seeing his private therapist, and reentered PDSD as a student.
@body:The compact, 15-acre campus of the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf is located in a pleasant, tree-shaded, north central Phoenix neighborhood. The grim, institutional blues and grays of a state institution mask an interior that is filled with festive rooms and corridors.
It is a special place, many deaf students and teachers say, because it offers nonhearing children a unique chance to be among equals.
But along with the special all-deaf environment come special problems. Because of limited funding, the state cannot afford separate deaf elementary, junior and high schools--all are located within proximity to one another on the PDSD campus. In addition, hearing loss often prolongs the educational process, requiring early admission into preschool and an extended stay in the upper grades--sometimes until students are in their early 20s--before a diploma is earned.
As a result, PDSD has a unique mix of students. Teenagers, legal adults and preschool children mix and mingle on the same small campus. The combination, the school's critics say, can be volatile.
A stroll around the school highlights the concern. The open, airy campus is not clearly defined; there are few fences marking off areas of concern like the preschool. All the students share locker rooms, a theatre building, lunch areas and many common hallways, courtyards and even some bathrooms. The campus seems to have been designed by those oblivious to an ugly reality of life--where there are adults and kids, there is the potential for abuse.
Especially when many of the older students are just learning to express themselves sexually, and may have emotional problems brought on by their deafness that can send teenage angst and urges careening into overdrive.
David was evidently a case in point. Comments counselors made to police paint a portrait of a troubled, confused boy-man--emotionally immature, possibly conflicted sexually and, in the words of his professional therapist, "socially inept."
Deaf since birth, David was reared in a poor family. Soon before the incident with Michael, his mother took him to counselors after he had threatened to kill himself--because a girl he was infatuated with broke off their friendship. He was often hard to control at home, and had on at least one occasion threatened his mother with violence.
The fact that this young man was allowed daily contact--on the PDSD bus and elsewhere--with dozens of young children like Michael illustrates the kind of problem Ralph Bartley was hired to solve.
@body:It is not an exaggeration to say that among many PDSD teachers and parents, Superintendent Ralph Bartley is a beloved figure. A gentle, soft- spoken administrator, he presides over the small group of institutions comprising the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and Blind with genuine compassion for the students. Even the Johnsons say he has earned generally high marks for efforts to improve the schools.
When Bartley assumed control of PDSD in September 1992, he immediately cleaned house. As he arrived, Farman departed, taking advantage of an early-retirement plan. Michael's bus driver also left the school. Although Bartley won't admit to wrongdoing on the part of former employees, he tacitly acknowledges that mistakes were made.
"When I came into the job," Bartley says, "I made it very clear, so that everyone would know, that when it comes to cases of sexual abuse, I don't want people worrying about the image of the school.
"We have a legal, moral and ethical responsibility to report cases to the police. That's the way we operate."
Bartley also revived the use of "SAY NO--GO TELL," a self-explanatory antimolestation mantra drilled into children at PDSD. Teachers and bus drivers alike were told to be more vigilant, with a special emphasis on monitoring during long bus trips to and from school.
While inadequate funding, he says, won't allow the kind of intensive supervision the school would prefer "in a perfect world," Bartley believes his "reforms" have minimized contact between older and younger students.
"It's true that when the bell rings, and students move from class to class, we can't always be sure which kids are coming into contact with each other," he says. "But parents can rest easy that the campus is a very safe place to be."
Bartley's earnest assurances aside, there is ample evidence that the campus simply isn't safe enough.
When Michael returned to PDSD in the fall of 1992, David was also back in class. The school, the Johnsons charge, did little or nothing to keep the two apart--and Michael was thrust into several frightening situations that sent him home shaking and crying with fear.
There were multiple encounters in common areas like locker rooms and bathrooms where David and Michael were left alone. On one occasion, Marci says, David glared menacingly at the younger boy during lunch--flashing the message in sign language to Michael that "you lied to the cops."