Mission Impossible

A walk in the moccasins of Cleveland Hammonds Jr.

Apr 10, 2002 at 4:00 am
You're Cleveland Hammonds Jr. And you have a terrible situation on your hands.

As superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, you're accustomed to trouble, but the package you receive from the Post-Dispatch on March 19 is a bombshell. It contains two sealed court documents showing that one of your school counselors was accused of child molestation in the 1970s.

The Catholic Church paid $110,000 in settlement to hush the case against the counselor, who was a priest at that time. He went on to be hired by the school district in 1991, survived news reports in 1994 about the lawsuits and is still on staff.

The case of James Beine has landed on your desk.

Your reaction is instinctive: This guy has to go. There's an immediate call to Beine to tell him he's suspended and demand his resignation, one that doesn't reach him because he has left for the day. His file is pulled and sent to school-board attorney Ken Brostron.

The file contains the 1994 news reports of the civil suits and indications that Beine was transferred as a result of them. But it contains no allegations of misconduct by Beine as a school-district employee. You still want him gone.

On the same day you learn of Beine's past, you tell Post reporter Tim O'Neil than Beine has been suspended with pay pending an investigation. The story breaks the next day, March 20.

The next morning, Beine returns your call. He's ready to resign without a fight, but he wants some vacation and sick pay in addition to his salary. You tell him you're not interested in negotiating, and he says he'll get back to you.

Instead, it's a union lawyer who gets in touch -- not with you but with the school-board attorney -- and they discuss a settlement. Beine has tenure, and firing him on the basis of something other than his on-the-job performance would be messy -- and costly.

After consulting with school attorneys, you agree that the district will fulfill the existing contract for the school year but with no benefits -- $11,610 -- and the deal is cut.

Meanwhile, you tell O'Neil that you're disappointed with the Catholic Church. Beine's file included positive references in 1991 from two officials -- a priest and a nun. Your quote is interpreted as a shot at the archdiocese, even a charge that high church officials knew about Beine. This draws fire from the highest levels of the church. Whether you said it wrong or whether it was reported wrong, you're asking for trouble.

On March 21, Beine's lawyer comes to your office to finalize the deal, signs the releases and other paperwork and receives the severance check. You hold a news conference to announce Beine's resignation.

"We didn't want to take any more chances with children," you say. You note that you acted even though there were no accusations against Beine involving his tenure of more than a decade with the school district.

But that gets you some news from the news media. KSDK-TV reporter Deanne Lane says there are reports a parent accused Beine of some sort of molestation -- just last year, in the school district. What about it?

You say this is the first you've heard about it. Back at the office, you ask your staff to find out what this is all about.

Still, you're feeling good about what you've done. Less than 48 hours after the Post informs you of Beine's past, you've gotten him out the door -- and away from the kids -- without spending a dime more than what was already in the budget.

And it's not as if Beine was hired on your watch: He came to the district five years before you did. Had school officials reacted to the news stories of 1994 the way you are reacting now, Beine might have been gone eight years earlier.

But if you're expecting congratulations, the next day's Post editorial brings you back to earth.

"The city schools spent millions a year on metal detectors and security guards, but couldn't get around to firing a counselor accused of sex abuse," it complains. It notes that you "refused to identify the source of the [employment] recommendation" given on behalf of Beine by church officials.

You're stung. You had expected at least some sort of nod from the Post for responding instantly to its inquiry. And what's this about a newspaper -- of all institutions -- expecting others to reveal confidential sources?

No matter. Things are only going to get worse.

The same day, you learn that a teacher and a parent in the district had indeed made accusations against Beine last May. But Lloyd Washington, the school principal who fielded the accusations, says he didn't find them credible -- citing a number of conflicts in the accusations and accounts by other teachers that supported Beine.

No action was taken. More important, no report was made to authorities -- possibly a criminal violation -- and nothing was placed in Beine's file.

You also learn that Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, herself criticized for seeming to go easy on the Catholic Church, is investigating this latest incident, which allegedly involved Beine's exposing himself to children.

You'll later say Joyce's investigation kept you from determining whether Washington broke the law by not reporting the allegations to authorities. Right or wrong, though, you look as if you're defending the principal's failure to take action. It doesn't look good.

The following Tuesday, school-board member Bill Haas calls for an investigation into how this could have happened in 1994. No one else comments on the idea.

But Haas has a good point, and it's a free shot for the Post, which editorially blasts board members for their "deafening silence." Again you're criticized for not releasing Beine's references and for failing to reveal why he was reinstated in 1994 after the district first learned about the lawsuits.

You're seen as circling the wagons with the school board.

And it's still getting worse. A day after announcing charges against Beine, Joyce seems to take the hardest shot at you yet.

"Joyce Says Hammonds Misstated When He Knew About Sex-Abuse Allegations," proclaims a March 30 headline. She is quoted as saying you were aware of Beine's troubles before March 19.

Your angry reply: "I don't know what she's talking about. She has the file. I'll say it again: Until last week Cleveland Hammonds Jr. didn't know anything about Beine. No reports came to my attention."

You also make comments to the media suggesting a double standard between Joyce's approach to the church and the school district. We never paid off a victim, and we never sealed any records, you say caustically. Now, this is intense.

You've managed to wind up publicly at odds with the powerful Catholic Church, the city's only daily newspaper and the city prosecutor. This has not gone well.

You and the school board have no choice but to announce an internal investigation. A Sunday Post editorial says the district can't be trusted and calls for a grand jury probe. And it has become as personal as if the whole sordid affair had taken place on your watch.

"Mr. Hammonds' attitude is disturbing," the Post writes. "Instead of firing or suspending Mr. Washington, [he] continues trying to shift blame to the Archdiocese of St. Louis."

The whole thing is out of hand. Forget about your quick action -- the one you were proud of -- to rid the district of Beine within 48 hours of hearing his name. The way this is playing in the media, it's your Beine scandal.

Adding insult to injury, the April 5 Post runs a stunning item: a correction in which the Post admits misquoting Joyce about your having been aware of Beine's case earlier.

"The quote used the word 'he' instead of 'they," the correction states. "Joyce said Wednesday that she was referring generally to school-district administrators, not to Hammonds personally."

Wow. All that friction with the circuit attorney was caused by a misquote, one the paper has publicly admitted. It isn't as if the paper is chastened, though. On the day the correction runs, the paper fires two more shots.

One is a news story, blaring at the top of the Metro section: "Beine Was Paid $11,610 to Resign From District." In the story, school-board members criticize you for not obtaining their approval for the settlement. You also look as if you rewarded a child molester.

As if that weren't enough, the paper publishes its toughest editorial yet. It concludes:

"Mr. Hammonds should be required to explain exactly what happened, why it happened and when he will put systems in place to prevent it from happening again. His job should hinge on his answers."

Post editorials don't matter much, but there's no doubt the paper is speaking for some of your school-board adversaries. Somehow this has become your scandal, and it doesn't seem to be going away. It may even endanger your job.

Beine is gone. But he hasn't been forgotten.

You're Cleveland Hammonds Jr. And you have a terrible situation on your hands.