Four lawsuits were filed Friday under the Child Victims Act, alleging that a retired Kenmore Tonawanda teacher repeatedly molested young boys, often in front of an entire room of classmates.
The lawsuits filed by four Buffalo-area men all name the Kenmore Tonawanda School District as the defendant, saying district officials either knew or should have known that social studies teacher Arthur F. Werner repeatedly molested boys at Herbert Hoover Elementary School in the early 1970s.
“Based on our investigation, we believe this was much more widespread than just my four clients,” said Amherst attorney Christopher J. O’Brien, who filed the lawsuits in State Supreme Court. “Our allegation is that this teacher regularly engaged in a pattern of calling young boys up to his desk in front of the class, where he would touch and grope them. Quite often, this happened in full view of the rest of the class, sometimes 20 or 30 more students.”
Werner, who is in his 80s and retired since 1993, could not be reached for comment Friday. A publicly listed telephone number for him is no longer in service. No one responded at his Town of Tonawanda home when a reporter knocked on the doors and rang doorbells.
A school district spokesman, Patrick Fanelli, said the district has been aware of one complaint against Werner for about a year and checked into it. The official also said the school district investigated to verify that Werner was no longer working with children, spoke with law enforcement and learned that the complaint was too dated to pursue a criminal complaint. Fanelli said the school district officially notified the state Education Department about the complaint against Werner.
None of the alleged victims is identified by name in the lawsuits.
One of the lawsuits charged that a client identified as OF DOE 3 was repeatedly molested and repeatedly watched other boys being molested by Werner when he was a fifth-grader at Hoover in the 1973-74 school year.
“He was regularly and repeatedly sexually assaulted, abused, groomed and/or groped by … fifth grade teacher Arthur Werner,” the lawsuit alleges. “Further, OF DOE 3 was forced to watch Arthur Werner regularly and repeatedly sexually assault other boys in this classroom. … As a result of the foregoing, OF DOE 3 sustained pain, suffering and emotional, mental and psychological injuries inflicted on him through no fault of his own.”
The lawsuits accuse the school district of “negligence, carelessness, lack of supervision and lack of appropriate policies.”
One of the accusers, a 57-year-old Buffalo-area businessman, spoke to The News on the condition that his name would not be published.
He alleged that Werner “would call you up to the front of his classroom, on the pretense of disciplining you for something.”
“He would put me on his lap and fondle my private parts, or he would fondle me as I stood there in front of the classroom,” the man said. He alleged that this happened to him at least six times. “Sometimes, while he was touching you, he would whisper in your ear, ‘I’m sorry I yelled at you. I’m sorry I punished you. I apologize.’ ”
On one occasion, the man said, a female art teacher walked into the classroom while Werner had the student on his lap and was molesting him.
“He just talked to this art teacher like nothing was wrong while he was rubbing my stomach and touching the front of my pants,” the man said. “She had to see what was going on.”
On another occasion, the man alleged, Werner molested him after asking him to come to the classroom after school to work on a model of a cave that was being built in the classroom.
The man said he has been “scarred for life” by what Werner did to him.
“I’ve never been able to have a normal relationship, even with myself,” the man said. “I’ve been married, divorced and several relationships with women ended badly. Every single night of my life, I have trouble sleeping. This experience I went through has been a constant companion to me for more than 45 years.”
O’Brien said two of his four clients know each other but had not seen each other for many years before coming to his office to file lawsuits. The other two clients came to him independently and have never met the others.
“When one person comes to you with an allegation like this, that is serious,” O’Brien said. “When two, three or four guys come to you, all telling the same story, all talking about incidents that happened within three years of each other, that is very serious. We strongly believe there are others who have not come forward yet.”
O’Brien said the alleged incidents took place in the 1971-74 time period. He said three of his clients were 10-year-old fifth-graders when the incidents happened, and the fourth was a sixth-grader, age 11.
A Ken-Ton teacher for 35 years, Werner was known for some innovative teaching techniques. Over the years, he was the subject of several laudatory articles in The Buffalo News. A News article in April 1988 focused on a detailed American Indian village that he and students had built in the classroom, “complete with living quarters, storage huts, trees and a canoe.” Another article in March 1990 said Werner and his students had built a replica of colonial Williamsburg, Va., in their classroom. The article said it was the 27th year that Werner and his students had built detailed models in the classroom.
"I'm the facilitator," Werner told an interviewer in the 1990 article, giving most of the credit to his students. "I was trained in architecture, but the students decided what to construct. They did the layout and design, and the students built it."
According to News articles, other Werner classes had built replicas of a volcano; the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru; Mystic Seaport in Connecticut; a gold-mining town in Central City, Colo.; and a stop on the Underground Railroad.
About 125 lawsuits have been filed locally under the state Child Victims Act since a one-year window opened for such filings Aug. 14. Most of the lawsuits allege that children were molested by Catholic priests, but several other cases have accused area school teachers of abuse.
In a statement sent to The News, the Ken-Ton district said it "is aware of serious and concerning allegations regarding conduct by former members of the district staff at the time of their employment approximately 40 years ago. The district has been committed to taking any and all action within the scope of its authority to appropriately respond to the allegations and has been in communication with the appropriate state authorities regarding this matter. The Ken-Ton School District takes any allegations of misconduct by staff extremely seriously regardless of how much time may have passed or whether the employee is or is not currently employed by the district."
O'Brien, a partner in the O'Brien & Ford law firm, said some of his four clients went decades before they told anyone about the alleged abuse they endured at the Hoover school. He said the men were embarrassed, fearful and ashamed, "even though they did nothing wrong and did absolutely nothing to deserve this."
The attorney said Werner was a commanding presence and a highly respected teacher when the incidents occurred. He alleged that the district had to have some idea of what was going on but "turned a blind eye" to the activities. Fanelli said none of the officials who ran the district in the early 1970s still work there.
"Think back to when you were 10 or 11 years old," O'Brien said. "If something like this happened to you, or you witnessed it, would you tell anyone?"
Story topics: Child Victims Act