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SEX EDUCATION

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.

Now a 34-year-old married woman who lives in another state, Janice's story is as chilling as it is sad: She says she had her first one-on-one encounter with Pitts in seventh grade, after one of his swimming parties.

Her mother was late picking her up, so she and Pitts played a board game called Blockhead. For some reason, Pitts lost his temper during the game, Janice recalls, starting what was to become a pattern of exploding at her, then apologizing profusely.

Janice attended a music camp headed by Pitts between seventh and eighth grades. Pitts kicked her out of class one time for unruly behavior, then "made up" later in private by giving her what she calls an extended hug.

The hugs and little kisses continued during eighth grade--the 1970-71 school year. At Christmastime, Pitts kissed Janice on the lips after a class and asked her to stop by his house to collect holiday ornaments. There he kissed her again, more passionately than before.

For the next several months, Janice would spend time at Pitts' home on Sunday afternoons. Janice would tell her folks she was taking a bike ride to a friend's house. The friend lived near Pitts.

Janice says she knew that what she was doing was wrong. A Mormon from a devout family, she expected divine retribution for participating in what she considered sinful activities. But things were spinning out of her control.

In the spring of 1971, Janice says, Pitts touched her genitals for the first time. It happened in the chorus room at a Mesa school. The kissing and fondling sessions continued. Then, just before the school year ended, Janice says, she and Ralston Pitts had sexual intercourse. She was a 13-year-old virgin. Pitts was in his late 30s.

From then until she was 18, Janice says, she and Pitts had sex several times each year.

As often occurs in such situations, Janice had fallen in love with Ralston Pitts. She considered him her secret "boyfriend" and dreamed that someday it could all come out in the open.

At her core, however, Janice was torn apart. She had violated a basic rule of her faith by having premarital sexual intercourse. The man with whom she had sex was old enough to be her father. And that man was black--in the days when blacks had marginal standing in the Mormon faith. There hardly could be greater shame. Her school grades kept slipping, and she was ill more often than not.

During her junior year in high school, Janice finally confided to close friends about her relationship with Pitts. One friend convinced her to talk to a Mormon bishop about it.

The question of how Mormons deal with abuse--sexual, physical or emotional--remains controversial. Many law enforcement and mental-health types say Mormon church officials prefer to handle such matters in-house.

It was not surprising, then, that the bishop felt obliged not to divulge Janice's confidences to anyone, including her parents or the Mesa police. He did urge Janice to tell her parents about Pitts, but, wracked with shame, she couldn't bring herself to do it. And so the relationship continued.

Janice says that during her senior year in high school, Pitts told her to start dating boys her own age. She agreed. But in times of depression and confusion, she would phone him and things would start up again.

The relationship didn't end even after Janice was graduated from high school in 1975 and enrolled at a local community college. But finally, in the summer of 1977, her psyche hit its breaking point.

Janice's brother got sick and she blamed the illness on what she considered her own sinful behavior. Soon, Janice told her sister-in-law about Ralston Pitts.

The woman insisted that Janice contact another LDS bishop. This bishop also urged Janice to speak with her parents. In the fall of 1977, Janice says, she told her folks the truth at last.

"Mom and Dad were working for the Mesa schools then," she says. "It was hard to know what was the right thing to do."
@rule:
@body:Weeks passed, and Ralston Pitts continued to show up for school in Mesa. But things were beginning to happen behind the scenes.  

Pitts' own church pastor learned of Janice's allegations. The pastor apparently informed Pitts, who hired an attorney--the son-in-law of good friend Mesa school superintendent George Smith. Pitts also asked Janice to convince her parents not to act until the end of the school year. Then, he told her, he'd quit and go away.

Around this time, Pitts managed to pull off a truly astounding feat. With his career--and maybe his freedom--hanging in the balance, Pitts asked Mesa school officials for letters of recommendation. And he got them.

In a document dated November 15, 1977, then-assistant superintendent Jim Zaharis wrote of Pitts: "Ralston's ability to have young people achieve their highest potential is remarkable."

Zaharis, now the superintendent of the Mesa schools, says he didn't know of the allegations against Pitts. "All I knew was that Ralston wanted to go to Tucson to work on his doctorate," he tells New Times. "I've never known anything about these allegations until this moment."

Pitts had acted quickly. It wasn't until a month later, on December 13, 1977--three days after Janice's 19th birthday--that her parents addressed a letter to the Mesa school board. They mailed it to then-board member Darl Andersen, whom they knew through church. It said in part:

"At the time our daughter was an eighth-grade student at Carson Junior High and Mr. Pitts was her teacher, he took her to his home and persuaded her to engage in sexual intercourse with him. He convinced her that she should not tell her parents of this because of the consequences. . . ."
The parents urged the board to force Pitts' resignation.
"We further feel," they continued, "that our school district should not recommend Mr. Pitts for any future assignment or employment where he will be involved with young people who may be so vulnerable to him."
One week later, the school board met in special session. Minutes of the meeting say about 50 people were in attendance, including a reporter from the Mesa Tribune. It isn't known if Ralston Pitts attended the meeting.

After 45 minutes of routine business, the board went into executive session "for discussion of a personnel matter." It reconvened in public 15 minutes later and--without discussion--unanimously approved the resignation of Ralston Pitts, effective the following June 30.

Two minutes later, Darl Andersen gave the closing prayer and the meeting was adjourned.

@rule:
@body:Ralston Pitts was sitting as pretty as possible after the Mesa school district swept the allegations against him under the rug.

He had escaped criminal prosecution.
His career in education was intact.
And by all accounts, Pitts never worked another day at the Mesa public schools after the December 1977 meeting. As part of his resignation deal, the board continued to issue Pitts paychecks for six months after the December meeting.

Pitts soon moved to Tucson, where he started to work on a doctorate. Less than three months after the board-sanctioned resignation, school superintendent George Smith wrote Pitts a sparkling letter of reference.

In contrast to Zaharis--who insists he hadn't known what was in the wind when he wrote his positive letter--Smith definitely knew, and admitted as much later. But he wrote the two-page letter, anyway.

"Mr. Pitts possesses an innate ability to stimulate outstanding performance on the part of those around him," Smith wrote. "I would rate him in the top 1 percent of all administrators I have worked with during my 25 years as a superintendent of schools."
Smith claimed Pitts had resigned from the Mesa public schools "for medical and professional reasons."

In an interview with New Times, Smith says, "I never presumed in 35 years to be judge and jury and to pass sentence on an employee. Ending someone's career just like that isn't the way the legal system works. You're making it sound like he was convicted of something. Ralston denied culpability. My concern always was for the child, but many times, kids are untruthful in their utterances. There was no evidence other than that letter from the parents."

In the fall of 1979, buoyed with glowing reference letters from men whose word carried weight in statewide school circles, Pitts found work as a teacher in the Tucson Unified School District. Smith tells New Times that he never knew the Tucson district hired Pitts.

"I lost track of him after Mesa for a few years, and I assumed he was just getting his doctorate as he had said," says Smith, who served for three years in the early 1980s as president of the Arizona Board of Education.  

Pitts' career shot upward in the decade that followed. In 1983, he landed a job at NAU as a music professor; he became chairman of NAU's Music Department in 1986; and in 1988, the university chose him as the first director of its School of Performing Arts.

@rule:
@body:Janice Johnson would telephone Ralston Pitts over the years, seemingly unable to break the bond. Pitts, she says, would agree to see her again--but only if she'd have sex with him.

In one phone conversation, Janice says, Pitts spoke of Biblical times when older men supposedly married 13-year-old girls. He referred to their long-ago "affair," telling Janice it hadn't been wrong, that society was wrong for disapproving of such things.

If she still had feelings of guilt, Pitts told her, that was her problem, not his.

Last February, she says, Pitts' normally irritable manner with her softened suddenly. He asked Janice how she was doing--that in itself was unusual--and expressed compassion for her nagging psychological and physical woes.

Janice didn't realize at the time of their February phone conversation that Ralston Pitts knew Flagstaff police were investigating him for child molesting.

@rule:
@body:The pending allegations against Ralston Pitts in Flagstaff are remarkably similar to those for which he was never prosecuted in Mesa.

Prosecutors will try to prove Pitts started the seduction process of his alleged Flagstaff victim--Karen"--when she was about 7, with molestation beginning a few years later, in 1985.

As in Mesa, Pitts had become a trusted soul around children in Flagstaff. He conducted private music lessons, headed children's church choirs and occasionally invited "my kids," as he'd call them, to his house parties.

His interest in Karen started when she was in second grade. Pitts would softly tell her again and again how pretty her hair was and how special she was. He won her parents' trust and friendship over the years as an attentive music teacher and fellow churchgoer.

Karen told police that Pitts had fondled her genitals briefly when she was in fourth grade. She was about 9 at the time and she never said a word to anyone about it. After a music lesson the following year, Karen said, Pitts stuck his finger inside her. It hurt terribly, but Pitts had instructed her to keep the incident a secret.

When she was in sixth grade, Karen said, Pitts tried to have sexual intercourse with her during a party for kids at his home. The other youngsters were playing outside while this went on, she said.

The sexual episodes with Pitts escalated over the next several years and included full intercourse and oral sex. Many of the experiences were physically painful for the girl, who said Pitts sometimes inserted inanimate objects into her vagina. But Karen still kept the situation to herself. Such silence is the norm, say those who work with child victims of sex crimes. Experts remain convinced that most child sexual abuse still goes unreported.

Karen told police her last sexual encounter with Pitts was in November 1991. As also is typical in such cases, Karen was afraid no one would believe her if she came forward. But she knew she had to try to put a stop to it.

In January 1992, the girl--now 16--confided in a woman she knew through her church and school. The woman informed Karen's parents, who called Flagstaff police. The agency launched an investigation.

After some difficulty, the investigation unearthed Pitts' alleged Mesa victim, Janice Johnson. And did she have a story to tell.

"I had kept things bottled up for so long," she tells New Times. "It felt good to tell the whole truth to someone in authority."
The Flagstaff investigators also found a high school classmate of Janice's. She said Pitts had once kissed her in his school office during junior high, and that she'd wriggled away from him. She had told her parents, the woman said. For some reason, they had decided not to pursue it.

@rule:
@body:Though the population of Flagstaff is nearing 50,000, it remains a small town in many ways. Pitts soon learned police were asking questions about him. By the time detectives tried to question him, he had already hired an attorney--just as he had in Mesa.

The Flagstaff police investigation proceeded slowly. Detectives backtracked through Pitts' past, noting his 1977 resignation from the Mesa Unified School District. They became very curious about the circumstances of Ralston Pitts' sudden departure from Mesa.

But they found surprising resistance to their efforts. Many of the prime movers behind Pitts' resignation showed faulty memories about the case of the teacher who allegedly had sex with a student. Last July, for example, a detective interviewed George Smith, the ex-Mesa superintendent who had written Pitts' laudatory reference letter in 1978.  

Smith downplayed Pitts' sexual involvement by referring to Janice Johnson as Pitts' "girlfriend." He said he did recall her parents' letter to the school board, but for the life of him, Smith couldn't remember the girl's name.

The superintendent--now retired--staunchly defended his actions. He said the reporting of molesting allegations to law enforcement authorities was not mandatory at that time. And, Smith added, Janice Johnson had reached the age of consent by the time the Mesa school district first heard of her allegations.

Smith tried to explain to detectives why he had referred to Pitts' resignation from Mesa in the 1978 recommendation letter as "medical and professional."

He speculated Pitts may have needed psychiatric care after the messy situation with Janice Johnson, or that maybe he had been referring to Pitts' supposed problems with his legs. Smith said he just wasn't sure.

Smith concluded by saying that, at the time, situations such as these usually were handled as the one involving Ralston Pitts had been handled--discreetly.

But Smith had been more than discreet. He had protected his friend at the expense of the alleged victim.

And Smith's son-in-law had represented Pitts legally during the troubles in Mesa, although Smith insists the hiring was "coincidental."

Current Mesa superintendent Jim Zaharis--another of Pitts' reference-letter writers--told a Flagstaff detective he didn't recall much about the case. He repeats that in an interview with New Times.

"I'm very surprised to hear all this," Zaharis says. "All I had heard was a rumor that something had gone on with him--I don't even know what it was. I'm unaware of any of these details. I was out of the loop at the time."
The Flagstaff police also spoke with the members of the Mesa school board who had let Pitts resign. The five members were Darl Andersen, John Crandall, Dennis Lambson, Marion Peterson and Lynn Sharp.

Some board members seemed to have markedly better memories than others. Marion Peterson told police he couldn't remember "specifics" about the Pitts incident. He said all he recalled of Pitts was that he was a good musician.

Darl Andersen, a Mormon bishop now on a mission in Alabama, said the board had done what it thought best for the Mesa public schools, for Janice--and, yes, for Ralston Pitts.

John Crandall, another ex-school-board member contacted by New Times, is one of few involved in the Pitts affair willing to admit that the board erred dreadfully. Crandall says he and his peers had taken Pitts at his word that he would never, ever do anything like this again.

"School boards are people people, and sometimes they err on the side of the employee," Crandall says. "In Ralston Pitts' case, he had done such a good job that we thought, 'Here is a good man who made a mistake.'

"It was us who made the mistake."
Ralston Pitts officially retired from NAU on September 30. A week later, Flagstaff police arrested him on 32 felony counts.


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