Parents turn to board for answers


Armed with questions and concerns pertaining to the arrest of an elementary school music teacher, more than 40 parents attended Monday night’s regular meeting of the Avonworth School Board.

Music teacher Walter Street, 59, of Ben Avon, was arrested Jan. 31 by Ohio Township Police. He is charged with the rape and sexual assault of a relative from the time she was 10. In 2009, at the age of 17, the girl reported the alleged abuse to the director of a youth organization, but recanted the charges when questioned by police. Earlier last month, school resource officer Chris Simcoviak investigated concerns expressed by staff at Avonworth Elementary that Street was inappropriately affectionate with children at the school. Although Street has not been charged for any conduct at the school, the investigation turned up evidence supporting the 2009 allegations. The victim, now 22, has confirmed her earlier statements.

At the beginning of Monday’s meeting, board president David Oberdick read a prepared statement in which he promised parents that the “health and safety of our students is our top priority.” Oberdick stated that Street had been suspended, and reminded the audience that the “charges filed are despicable but not yet proven,” that “the district cannot discuss the details at this time,” and that the board was “limited and constrained as to what we can say.”

One mother admitted that she was “heartbroken” and that “these kinds of things shouldn’t happen here.” Establishing that parents now need clearances to assist in classroom activities, she asked how often the teachers need to obtain clearances.

William Andrews, the district’s solicitor, answered that employees obtained Act 34 (PA criminal history record) and Act 151 (PA child abuse history) clearances when hired, but that if there was no break in employment, then the clearances were not updated. However, if an employee was arrested, he/she had to report that occurrence to the administration within a very short period of time.

A second parent questioned why the district had not taken action in 2009, when allegations were first made. The response from the board was that there had been no basis upon which to do so because in 2009, no charges were filed, no one was convicted, and that the original complainant had recanted her statements.

Another parent asked if the district had been aware of the 2009 investigation by the police, and what actions had the district taken between 2009 and 2014, saying that “something led you to search his computer and e-mails” recently.

Andrews said the district was aware of the 2009 investigation in 2009. Andrews said that the next time anyone had questioned behavior by Street “was in 2014, when we advised the police.” When pointedly asked if, because “no charges were filed in 2009, the school district did nothing?” Andrews replied that “The witness recanted. You can’t take actions with no proof.”

“A lot of us have the same questions,” said another parent, which was “What safeguards were in place between 2009 and 2014?” She also asked the board “if there will be a time in the future when you can reveal what you did” during those years?

Oberdick said that the board probably would know more details later in the week, after Street’s preliminary hearing, scheduled for Thursday. Oberdick continued that, “We’re being told by authorities to respect the process,” and advised by the solicitor not to comment on specifics. “We’re in a difficult position,” Oberdick concluded.

Another mother told the board that after hearing of the allegations, she had questioned her two young daughters and learned that both of them had been on Street’s lap.

“My children were on his lap. It makes me sick.” she said. “What did you do to protect my daughters?” She questioned if the district had given any thought to using surveillance cameras.

Andrews reminded the audience that none of the allegations of 2009 took place on school property and that, “You can’t film an entire school district.” He stated that the “teachers are watched carefully by administrators.

One parent asked if the board could comment on the process of how allegations are handled. Andrews stated that all employees have received Act 126 (Child Abuse Recognition and Reporting) training to recognize the signs of abuse and sexual misconduct, as well as the reporting requirements for any suspicions. He pointed out that school district employees are “mandated reporters” meaning they are required by law to comply with Act 126.

Avonworth superintendent Tom Ralston noted that, overall in society, there has been a “heightened sense of alert since Penn State,” and repeated that all Avonworth employees had received Act 126 training. He added, “This is a case where the system worked.” The district had received “no allegations against this individual from anyone.”

Andrews emphasized that the “administration and school board had no idea there was an issue” (with Street) and there had been “no attempt to sweep anything under the rug.” He repeated that there was “no report by any student, teacher, cafeteria worker, janitor or anyone that there were problems” with Street’s conduct.

Comparing the turmoil and possible trauma caused by the current situation to one that results from a death, when the school district brings in grief counselors, one parent of elementary students asked, “What’s the protocol? What are we going to do as a district to figure out who the kids should talk to?” He stated, “Process is important, but when our kids are involved, we want answers.”

According to Ralston, resources concerning dealing with trauma had already been sent home. He encouraged parents to have discussions with their children. Ralston said that the district had made extra counselors available, and teachers had been encouraged to look for any changes in the students that might indicate they needed assistance. Ralston stated the district also would respond to parents’ requests and would facilitate counseling.

One parent stated “I’m not saying anything (to my children) because I don’t want to talk about it,” but added that older students were discussing things with younger kids. She asked if there could be some direction “at the classroom level to stop talking” about the situation. Ralston responded that trauma counselors generally encourage that usual routines be continued, and the Avonworth teachers had been instructed to try to get back to a sense of normalcy in the classrooms and to be more vigilant during non-structured times.

Ralston summarized, “As alarming as this situation is to all of us,” it is “an example of the system working. We became aware. We acted.”

School board member Patrick Stewart attempted to alleviate fears by interjecting a personal scenario. He stated that all four of his daughters had been in classes with Street and that nothing had occurred. He vowed, “I promise you, we (the school board) will leave no stone unturned” in investigating “what we could have done better.” Stewart emphasized, “There is nothing being covered up here.”

Detective Joe Haney of the Ohio Township Police Department added, “The board, school district, and the Ohio Township Police always have and always will work together.” He reminded the audience that “The investigation continues and takes time. Let us do our job and insure justice is done.”

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