A hushed silence fell over the room as Diane Felix began to speak. The mother of a young girl who attends the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf, Felix was quivering with rage, and her words flowed forth with a bitter edge.
"Somebody at this school pulled down my little girl's pants and touched her genitals," Felix said. "And just like in those other cases, the school did absolutely nothing about it. In fact, it tried to cover it up.
"Why aren't you protecting our children?"
Felix was one of about 100 parents who attended a dramatic, chaotic meeting called by PDSD administrators on Thursday of last week to discuss accusations that the school has been lax in responding to the sexual molestation of its students. She insists that the New Times story detailing the abuse of four students enrolled at the state-funded school (Hear No Evil," November 17) is "only the tip of the iceberg."
Felix isn't alone. More than a dozen parents have contacted New Times in the wake of the story to claim that their children have also been victims of sexual or violent abuse at the school, which has an enrollment of 250 students.
The story described how school officials failed to notify police--as required by law--after being informed that an 18-year-old high school student repeatedly molested and demanded oral sex from a 10-year-old boy on a PDSD bus. The 18-year-old, referred to as "David" in the New Times account, also reportedly molested two girls, ages 10 and 7, on the same bus.
Despite the fact that David confessed to the school's then-principal, Jay Farman, that he had fondled the boy's penis and touched the girls, the school allowed him to continue having contact with young children--including the boy victim.
The story also highlighted another molestation--the second such incident at the school in 18 months--of a 6-year-old who was allegedly forced by a 17-year-old boy to have sex in a campus rest room. According to the lawyer hired by the molested child's parents, the school did little or nothing to investigate the crime.
Critics charge that administrative indifference and the special composition of the PDSD student body--which includes deaf children as young as 3 along with adults as old as 22--have proved to be a recipe for disaster. Allowing students of all ages to mingle without supervision in common locker rooms, lunch areas and some bathrooms creates an atmosphere in which young children become easy prey for older molesters.
Felix, who confronted school officials after her daughter told her about the molestation, says she was "given the brush-off."
"I was told there was nothing you could do about it," Felix told administrators at the meeting. "I called you immediately. I screamed, I yelled, but you just didn't care. No one wanted to take responsibility.
"Well, now we know she's not the only one who has been molested. And now we can force you to take responsibility."
PDSD superintendent Ralph Bartley apologized to Felix in front of the crowd of parents, saying he had never been informed about her complaint. Bartley and PDSD principal Terry Hostin were contrite, admitting, "We have to accept blame for mistakes made in the past" and pleading for the families of students to "work together with the school to face the problems."
But the mood of parents at the meeting was contentious rather than cooperative, and Bartley and Hostin were shouted down several times by Felix and other parents--who repeatedly expressed anger that the school did not notify them about the molestations.
"Why do we have to hear about these things through a newspaper?" asked Peter Kilgort, whose son attends PDSD. "You should be letting us know that there is a problem so we can warn our children."
Other parents complained bitterly about a lack of supervision, saying that the school does not provide enough classroom aides and monitors to ensure that older students don't have an opportunity to corner and abuse younger ones.
"There's a real security problem at this school," Felix yelled to school officials as the room erupted in applause, "and we want to know what you're going to do about it."
Bartley, however, deftly passed the bureaucratic buck, shrugging and saying that the school's funding is limited.
"I can only do what I can do with the funding the state provides," he told parents, referring them to handouts provided by administrators listing the names of state legislators. "Call these people and ask them for more money for the school, and we can do more," he said.
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A dozen parents, some of whom sat through the meeting with tears streaming down their cheeks, later approached New Times to complain that their children had also been the victims of fondling or beatings at the hands of older students.
"I have been afraid to speak up until tonight," one weeping mother said. "But now that I see there are so many of us, I know the problem must be dealt with."
Seemingly stunned by the outpouring of emotion, Bartley pledged to "report any molestation incident to police immediately" and to "continue working to make the campus as safe a place as it can be."
But parents such as Felix are pessimistic.
"They have so far to go," she says. "I mean, I've been on campus and seen two children having oral sex, while other children watched and screamed in terror. No one was there to stop them.
"It's total anarchy over there.