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40 years later, scars of abuse at Ken-Ton remain for two women

It was more than 40 years ago.

Maggie George was a student in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District when, she said, she had a long-term, inappropriate relationship with a teacher at her high school.

At the time, she thought of it as a love story. She never considered him a boyfriend, but loved the attention he gave her.

Now 61, George sees what happened to her as emotional and sexual abuse and, inspired by the #MeToo movement, decided a few months ago to report what happened to the school district. She also shared her story with The Buffalo News.

"I’ve got a lesson for others to learn," George said.

She is not the only one.

A second woman, Lorna Barrie, now 59, has come forward to the school district and The News about an inappropriate sexual relationship she had with a different teacher at the same school that started when she was 16 and went on for years after she graduated.

Neither woman reported their allegations while they were students but both said that years later as adults, they tried to report the teachers. Nothing was done.

Then, last fall, came the widely publicized allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, which marked a sea change in attitudes toward claims about sexual harassment and assault by powerful men.

Next, dozens of Olympic gymnasts accused their doctor of sexually abusing them.

Around the same time, a former student at the prestigious Nichols School in Buffalo came forward with allegations about an inappropriate relationship she had had with a teacher when she was a student, prompting a massive investigation by the school. Also, the Diocese of Buffalo acknowledged that dozens of priests had been accused of sexually abusing children.

Earlier this year when George came forward to her old school district, they listened.

Nichols grad describes 'lasting damage' from sexual relationship with teacher in 1990s

“Based on the allegations, I don’t care if it happened last week or 40 years ago, it’s disturbing,” said Kenmore-Tonawanda Superintendent Stephen Bovino, who was appointed to his position in 2017.

But there’s a limit to what a school district can do, Bovino said, with so many years having passed. The teachers the women named have long since retired. Statutes of limitations would prevent any criminal charges from being filed.

It’s a quandary many institutions face: What do you do about decades-old accusations?

Confronting the past

It’s not uncommon for survivors of abuse to come forward many years later, said Robyn Wiktorski-Reynolds, clinical operations officer at Crisis Services, which operates a 24-hour sex assault hotline and provides advocates for victims.

“When a child is abused by an adult — an authority figure, a family member, a loved one or a person trusted with their care — it makes the ability to come forward even harder,” Wiktorski-Reynolds said. “The child wonders if they themselves will be punished, will they be believed.”

Rebecca Stevens, the director of the Child Advocacy Center, said in the 1970s and 1980s, child sex abuse was almost exclusively discussed in terms of “stranger danger.”

But the reality then and now is that most children who suffer abuse aren’t plucked from a street by a scary stranger.  “They are abused by somebody they love or trust,” Stevens said.

Florina Altshiler, a Buffalo attorney who used to prosecute sex crimes in Alaska, predicted there will be many more cases.

“We’re going to see a lot more old cases coming forward now,” Altshiler said, “because the culture is changing and victims of crime who remained silent for decades may feel like they’re not alone and may feel comfortable.”

Two former students of the Kenmore-Tonawanda Union Free School District are grappling with their experiences of sexual abuse at the school years ago. (John Hickey/News file photo)

‘A naïve and unworldly kid’

Lorna Barrie was 16 years old and a junior during the 1974-1975 academic school year when the alleged sexual contact began with her coach, who was also a teacher, she told the district and The News.

Barrie’s father died when she was 5. She thinks she was searching for a father figure in the coach who recognized her talent as an athlete.

“In my junior year, I pulled my hamstring muscle during training,” she said. “He would take me into a smaller room at the field house … and ‘massage’ my strained muscle,” she told The News.

The massages turned to fondling and kissing, she said. She said the teacher also had her touch him.

“I was in shock and totally confused and terrified,” Barrie said. The teacher “told me I was special; I was his ‘beauty’ and that he was going to help me realize all of my dreams. I was a naïve and unworldly kid. I respected him as an authority figure and coach … so I just gave in and did as he said and accepted what he was doing to me.”

The touching turned to intercourse. She said the sexual incidents continued through the summer and into her senior year when she was 17. She said the teacher “assaulted me in his car, in his basement, in his home office and in his parents’ home and pool around the corner from where he lived.” She said there were several incidents on school property.

“I loathed myself,” she said. “I was absolutely disgusted by what was happening.” But she said she craved the teacher’s approval.

Another former student, who asked to remain anonymous, accused the same teacher of forcibly kissing her against her will in a locker room in June 1985 when she was 17 and a senior. She said she reported the incident to the district. Two other former students also recently reported witnessing inappropriate behavior by the same Ken-Ton teacher in the 1970s and 1980s.

The News contacted the accused teacher at his home in Florida on June 2. He declined to speak on the record at that time but arranged to speak again by June 5. The News made multiple attempts to reach him again but he did not return calls.

‘Robbed of a normal high school experience’

Maggie George said the relationship with her teacher started when he noticed her at a school dance. She was 14½, a sophomore, and she learned he had asked some girls about her. He was 27.

She said a few days later the teacher asked her to play one-on-one basketball then drove her to the Buffalo Zoo parking lot where he repeatedly tried to kiss her.

“He was begging me to kiss him,” George said.

She was taken aback. But she also liked the attention, she recalled. Like Barrie, her father had died. George said she was 11 when her father died of a heart attack in her arms.

It left her withdrawn. The teacher stopped his physical advances, at least for a while. But she said he continued to pay an unusual amount of attention to her. They would sit and talk for hours and also play tennis, she said.

In the summer at the end of her junior year, when she was 16, she said the teacher coaxed her to jump into the pool one day with their clothes on. George said he touched her breasts and then he put her hand on him.

“That is not what a teacher is supposed to be doing,” George remembered thinking. “I froze.”

At that moment, a custodian walked in to the pool area and George remembered the teacher saying something to him.

After that incident, George said she tried to keep her distance, but the teacher continued to pay attention to her and she was still drawn to him. She said she didn’t go to her prom because he didn’t want her to.

On the day of her high school graduation, George said the teacher found her after the ceremony and asked her to come meet him at his property five days later. She said she did and they had sex. She was no longer a student and was now 17, which was the legal age of consent.

She acknowledged that there were only a few physical encounters but she now believes the attention he lavished on her was inappropriate and manipulative.

George wrote about her experience with the teacher in a My View column titled “Predator stole years of my life” that appeared May 13.

"Because of him, I was robbed of a normal high school experience that I could look back on with any semblance of fond memories," she wrote. "The guilt and shame I felt were overpowering at times ... As is typical of childhood sex abuse victims, I spent years blaming myself for the abuse, feeling guilty and ashamed, and viewing myself negatively."

My View: Predator stole years from my life

The teacher George accused of sexually abusing her denied knowing George and refused any other comment to The News.

A friend of George’s from high school confirmed to The News that she saw the teacher paying an unusual amount of attention to George and that she confided in her that their relationship had become sexual around the time it was going on.

Another former student said that the same teacher touched her buttocks after engaging her in a game of one-on-one basketball when she was a senior and 17, around 1973.

Previous attempts to report

Barrie read George’s account in The News and was stunned to see the parallels in what had happened. They did not know each other in high school, they said.

She reached out to George and the two have remained in touch and are supporting each other’s decisions to come forward.

They’re also part of a closed Facebook group of alumni.

Neither woman reported the incidents while they were students, but both said they tried to.

Barrie said she sent a handwritten letter to the district many years ago — possibly in the 1990s. She said she met with an administrator at her old high school — while the teacher she had the relationship with was still there — but nothing happened after that. She also said she reached out to local newspapers, including The News.

“I never heard anything back from anybody,” she said.

George said she reported her situation to the Ken-Ton school district in the fall of 1998 after learning the teacher may have been involved with another student. She learned at the time that the teacher had retired. She said the person she talked to at the district — she doesn’t know the name of the person — said that an attorney would get back to her. “I never heard from anyone,” she said.

Revoking teaching certification

Ken-Ton Superintendent Stephen Bovino, who was appointed to his position in 2017, said his administration is limited in what it can do about allegations about incidents from the 1970s.

Ken-Ton officials declined to discuss details about allegations made against former teachers, but talked in general about how it has handled recent complaints.

The district could — and would — do a lot more if the allegations were made about recent behavior, or if accused teachers were still employed by the district

“We would interview other students, staff members,” Bovino said. “If the allegations were found to be accurate, that would result in discipline or termination.”

Lorna Barrie has come forward recently with allegations that when she was a student at Ken-Ton school district in the 1970s, her track and field coach sexually abused her. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The district can collect information about the allegations, as well as how previous administrations dealt with reports, and file a moral character complaint to the state Education Department, known as a “Part 83” complaint. It includes allegations of sexual abuse but includes all kinds of complaints that could lead to an educator’s certification to be permanently revoked.

Bovino said he is “obligated to report whenever there’s a situation with current or past employees that calls into question their moral character.”

The state receives thousands of Part 83 complaints every year. In the last three years, the state has revoked the licenses of 267 educators as a result of Part 83 complaints.

The district hired a private investigator to find the teachers and determine whether they were still teaching or coaching minors. The district did not obtain any information that indicated either man was teaching or coaching, officials said.

The district also encouraged the women to take their allegations to law enforcement. The incidents that happened when the women were under 16 could be considered crimes, but anything later would not. The age of consent in New York has been 17 since 1967, according to research by the Erie County District Attorney’s Special Victims Bureau.

But statutes of limitations on sex crimes against children would prevent any possible charges from being filed about earlier incidents, even under the proposed Child Victims Act. The legislation, passed by the State Assembly in May and delivered to the State Senate, would extend the statute of limitations on pressing criminal charges of the most serious sex crimes to 10 years after the child turns 18 and give a victim until he or she is 50 to file a civil lawsuit about child sex abuse. George is 61 and Barrie is 59. Statutory rape isn’t included in the Child Victims Act.

Bovino said the district learned about the closed Facebook page, and directed Chris Swiatek, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources and Patrick Fanelli, the district’s community relations coordinator, to express that the district “is more than willing to listen to what they had to say,” Bovino said.

Swiatek talked to George by phone and interviewed Barrie in person, the women told The News. Other Ken-Ton alumni also have contacted the district to report they had seen one of the teachers behave inappropriately, they told The News.

Barrie and George said they felt that this time, the district took their complaints seriously.

“He seemed sincerely dedicated to trying to help,” Barrie said.

George said: “As far as currently, we could not ask for more cooperation than we are receiving from Mr. Chris Swiatek at KenTon.”

George and Barrie said they’ve been in contact with state education officials, who said that their cases will be investigated but any outcome could take years.

Both the women said that while their memories are painful, they have moved on with their lives and are happy now.

But they want people to understand that what happened caused long-lasting damage that took them years to come to grips with.

Barrie said she and George were inspired by the #MeToo movement but don’t want people to think they’re just jumping on the bandwagon.

“I don’t want the attention,” she said. “I don’t want anything out of it other than for him and people like him to be stopped.”

The women want to keep other girls and boys from going through what they did and for teachers and administrators to take action when they notice a colleague paying too much attention to a student.

And they want other people to not be afraid to come forward.

“For all of you who are still keeping your decades-old stories inside of you,” George wrote in an email, “I hope you find peace. Forgive yourself for not protecting yourself. What did we know? We were just children. I am OK now. Please be OK, too.”