A former Parent Teacher Association leader said she told a Hoover Elementary School principal more than four decades ago that teacher Arthur F. Werner had molested a child — her own 11-year-old son.
The principal assured her that he would speak to Werner and make sure it never happened again, the woman said.
But in the past month, Werner has been accused of molesting 30 children, far more than any other individual named in Child Victims Act lawsuits in Western New York.
At least 10 of the victims who filed the lawsuits allege that Werner sexually abused them after the 1973-74 school year, when the woman complained to the principal, said Chris O’Brien, the attorney who filed the lawsuits.
O'Brien alleged that the abuse continued through the 1970s and as far as the 1988-89 school year.
The former PTA leader said it is tragic and upsetting that the Hoover principal and other officials of the Kenmore Tonawanda School District failed to put an immediate stop to Werner’s abuse of children.
“I spoke to the principal because he knew me quite well through my work with the PTA, and I believed he would take my complaint very seriously and make sure this would never happen to any other children,” the woman told The Buffalo News. “Based on all the lawsuits that have been filed against Mr. Werner, we now know that he didn’t stop doing it. My son was never victimized again, but we know other children were."
"I feel terrible about this," the woman added. "I thought that if I reported it to the principal, I would be protecting other children.”
A social studies teacher since the late 1950s, Werner was so highly regarded that he was once mentioned in an article written by the famous television newsman Walter Cronkite.
He took students on overnight trips to historical places, headed a Native American dance group that performed at Indian heritage festivals all over the United States, and received accolades for working with Hoover students to build highly detailed replicas of a New England seaport, a volcano, a Western gold-mining town, a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru.
An Army veteran, Werner was selected by the Tonawanda Jaycees as one of three finalists in the organization's 1966 "Outstanding Young Educator" award, according to newspaper articles.
But in recent weeks, Werner, now 86, has been accused of molesting male students in 30 lawsuits filed against the Ken-Ton district. Werner is not a defendant, but each lawsuit identifies him as a molester of boys, most of them 10 to 12 years old.
O’Brien said most of the former Hoover students who filed lawsuits alleged that Werner molested them at his desk, often in front of an entire classroom of students. The plaintiffs are not named in the court papers. According to the lawsuits, most of the alleged incidents occurred between 1965 and 1974, but some claim Werner molested kids in the 1976-77, 1980-81, 1987-88 and 1988-89 school years.
Werner retired in 1993. He has been married for 60 years to a retired schoolteacher.
Over the past four weeks, The News has tried unsuccessfully to contact Werner and members of his family. A Buffalo lawyer who has represented the family declined to comment. One relative of Werner’s hung up her telephone when a reporter asked about the allegations.
District: No record of warning
The former PTA official spoke to The News on the condition that her name, and her son’s name, would not be published. Her son has talked to O’Brien about filing a lawsuit, but has not filed it yet.
The former Hoover Elementary principal she said she warned about Werner died in 2015.
Patrick Fanelli, spokesman for the Ken-Ton school system, told The News on Monday that the district has no information or documentation related to the woman’s alleged report about Werner to the school principal.
“To the best knowledge of current district administrators, the district was never made aware of any alleged misconduct by this former member of the district staff until one complaint was made during the summer of 2018,” Fanelli said. “At that time, the district took all action within the scope of its authority to appropriately respond to that one individual complaint. The district was never aware until the recent lawsuits were filed over the past month that there were any other allegations regarding this same former member of the district staff.”
The district is "absolutely not" saying the former PTA leader is untruthful, Fanelli said. "We're only saying that we have no written record of her complaint." He said the district is "very concerned" about the allegations against Werner, adding that the district reported the allegation it heard last year to the state Education Department.
“From our own research and investigation, I believe this woman’s statement is entirely credible,” said O’Brien. “The Ken-Ton district failed miserably in its response to her complaint. They get an F.”
One of Werner's accusers, a 57-year-old Buffalo-area businessman, told The News last month 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.’ ”
The man, who said he was 11 when Werner molested him in the mid-1970s, also said Werner molested him once after school, after asking him to come to the classroom to work on a model of a cave.
PTA leader recalls meeting
While she does not remember the specific date, the former PTA leader said she vividly recalls the afternoon when her son, who was in the fifth grade, came home from school and nervously told her what Werner did to him.
“She said Mr. Werner had called him up to the front of his class, told him to sit on his lap, and touched him in a very inappropriate way, on his private parts,” the woman recalled. “It was difficult and embarrassing for him to tell me this, he hardly knew what words to use."
The woman said she quickly called the principal and set up a meeting with him.
“I told him what happened, exactly as my son told me,” the woman recalled. “From his reaction, I felt that this was the first time he was hearing this about Mr. Werner. He did seem very concerned. He told me that, yes, this was very inappropriate and he would make sure to talk to the teacher about this and make sure it would never happen again.”
Because her son told her it never happened to him again, she said she assumed — for decades — that the district had effectively addressed the situation and put a stop to it.
But then, on Aug. 30, came the first news media reports that the school district had been sued, and Werner had been accused of molesting four former students. That was followed by more stories about other lawsuits involving Werner.
“I now realize that, whatever the principal or the district did about my complaint, it was totally ineffective,” said the woman, who lives in Western New York. “I’m a retired educator myself, a former teacher and trainer of teachers. I feel terrible about all this. I thought I was saving other kids, but I now realize I should have pursued my complaint much further.”
She said the Werner case should serve as a “warning” to parents, teachers and school district officials all over the United States.
“Who knows how many other students’ lives were damaged because nobody put a stop to this?” she said. “Principals, teachers and school district officials all need to know — if you see something like this, say something."