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Friday, July 10, 2020

UPDATED: Kirkwood High School Alumni Allege Years of Sexual Abuse

Posted By on Fri, Jul 10, 2020 at 10:33 AM

click to enlarge Kirkwood High School alumni allege former teachers sexually abused them. - GOOGLE STREET VIEW
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  • Kirkwood High School alumni allege former teachers sexually abused them.

UPDATE: This article has been updated with a statement from Kirkwood High School and a Facebook statement from Franklin McCallie.

Trigger Warning: The following story includes accounts of sexual abuse, which may be upsetting to some readers.

Sexual assault allegations against multiple former Kirkwood High School teachers have exploded during the past several days in alumni social media groups.

It began with a Facebook post on Tuesday, prompting several former Kirkwood High School students to come forward to share their stories of abuse, some describing events that date back to the early 1980s. 



Katie Pappageorge's post on July 7 set off the chain of events that has led multiple survivors to speak out about stories of grooming, manipulation, abuse and assault they say they suffered at the hands of at least three different faculty members. The Riverfront Times is withholding the names of the former educators because no charges have been filed.  We would normally withhold the names of sexual abuse victims as well, but Pappageorge and two other women interviewed for this story have given the RFT permission to publish their names and share details of their allegations.

In her account, Pappageorge describes long-running abuse by a drama teacher, beginning during her freshman year when she was just twelve years old (she skipped two grades of elementary school). The abuse continued into her junior year, until the teacher quietly resigned at the beginning of the second semester, she says in an interview. Pappageorge posted the allegations to the Kirkwood High School Alumni Facebook page. An administrator of the page deleted the post shortly after it went live, but it has since been restored. 

Pappageorge says that she decided to write the post after trying for two years to take action against her abuser, first by reaching out to his current employers and eventually to police. However, as she explains, she is not necessarily interested in seeing her abuser go to prison; she wants to see the Kirkwood community held accountable for what she sees as turning a blind eye to the suffering she and other students endured.

"I don't even want to see this man in jail," Pappageorge says. "I would like the Kirkwood community to show accountability. I was a shy kid, and no one knew I was being abused. There are people like me out there, and I want to give them validation and the ability to not feel alone."

Pappageorge describes a harrowing tale of abuse that began almost immediately into her freshman year at Kirkwood High School. After auditioning for a play, she began interacting closely with her abuser, the school's drama teacher, under the auspices of a mentor-mentee relationship, she says.

She felt uncomfortable following the audition and a strange callback involving several other girls who were similarly shy, but she did not think much of it until her mentorship involved rehearsing romantic scenes one on one with the teacher. Eventually, this escalated to touching, kissing and ultimately a sexual relationship that lasted over two years, she charges. 

"I was very confused," Pappageorge says. "I thought I was in love with this man. He'd completely isolated me. This whole time, I thought I was participating in drama, but the only person who knew about it was him. Then all of a sudden he was gone. It was all kinds of chaos and humiliating."

Another former student, Kate Hurster Espinosa, says she was abused by the same teacher, during roughly the same period in the 1990s. Fourteen years old at the time of her first encounter, she recalls feeling taken aback by his inappropriate behavior, but she says she was unsure how to process it.

"I can look back on it now and say, 'Oh, that wasn't OK,' but I was fourteen years old and a freshman," Hurster Espinosa says in an interview. "It was shocking, but no one acted like it was wrong, and I figured this was how things were done because I'd never done a play before. I was the youngest person in the room and the one with the least amount of power."

Hurster Espinosa details a string of incidents that included inappropriate touching and kissing. She says she also witnessed the teacher abuse at least two other female students as well.  "His abuse was preying on the insecurities and vulnerabilities of young people who were desperate for guidance and mentorship," Hurster Espinosa says.

Other formers students have shared their accounts about the teacher on social media, but the recent posts on the alumni page have also included allegations against other former Kirkwood faculty. At least two other teachers have been implicated in Facebook posts, including a marching band director identified by class of 1984 alum Parmela Plein.

"It started almost immediately during freshman year and continued all the way until junior year when it stopped because I figured out it wasn't normal," Plein says. "Earlier on, I thought that maybe this was how adults acted and it was normal, but once I realized it wasn't, I dropped out of all music activities. Then, I was retaliated against when I asked for a letter of recommendation to get into a music program and he refused to give me that."

Like Pappageorge and Hurster Espinosa, Plein describes ongoing abuse that started out slowly with hugging and touching. She says it eventually escalated to inappropriate touching and her abuser showing her pornography and condoms. Though Pappageorge, Hurster Espinosa, Plein and many of the other survivors who have posted on Facebook did not report their abuse to Kirkwood High School administrators at the time it occurred, they remain critical of then-principal Franklin McCallie for what they see as a failure to see the obvious. 

"They got a new drama teacher who took me to John Dean [the drama department head] and McCallie after [my teacher] resigned and I was upset and crying that I wasn't on the drama list," Pappageorge says. "Whatever they said to me, it was extremely euphemistic. I didn't hear the words 'abuse' or 'sexual assault.' They said he'd resigned and left them in a bad place, and they felt bad for me because they didn't want it to ruin my drama career. They didn't counsel me or offer me anything. It was extremely silencing. I did not get the impression that I was there to talk about sexual assault."

In a statement posted over the weekend to the Kirkwood High School alumni page, McCallie acknowledges the grief of survivors but denies the charges that he and his administration looked the other way as abuse was carried out by members of the faculty. In fact, he describes immediate taken against one particular teacher as soon as allegations of abuse came to light. However, McCallie acknowledges that, with the benefit of hindsight, had he put the issue of sexual abuse at the forefront of administration policy, the school could have been a leader for the community on such matters. McCallie's full statement can be found at the end of this post.

Pappageorge says that in 2017 she started to come to terms with the extent of abuse. Once she did, she began to take action, contacting her former teacher's current employers in 2018. However, the pieces really began falling into place for her when she connected with Hurster Espinosa and another survivor in 2019. Together, the three of them contacted police, hoping to see their abuser held to account for his actions. 

At that time, Pappageorge anonymously posted an account of her experiences to the Kirkwood High School Alumni Facebook page, only to have it deleted within 30 minutes. That experience mirrors the one from this past Tuesday, when her post was erased from the site, only to reappear after members of the Facebook group expressed outrage at seeing her silenced. 

"I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to happen here because of all of the frustrations and the roadblocks we've gotten," Pappageorge says. "I'm not interested in punishing him. I don't want him to be around young people because I think he is a danger. But, to me, the ideal outcome is not charges in a criminal sense, but a complete overhaul of Kirkwood as an institution and similar institutions like this to do something that values survivors."

David Ulrich, who was just installed as Kirkwood School District superintendent on July 1, issued a statement on the allegations and encouraging survivors to contact both his office and the police. The district is also offering counseling for survivors. Ulrich's statement can be found below.

Statement of Franklin McCallie:

Recently, on the pages of Facebook’s KHS Alumni Association, I have been called a “coward” and accused of “sweeping under the rug“ sexual abuse by teachers against students. Anyone in St. Louis, University City, or Kirkwood who knows me knows those two quotes do not describe me. Yet given the input from alumni most affected, I have carefully and painfully considered the abuse they suffered, the administrative responses, and what more could have been done in terms of awareness and prevention.

As KHS principal from school years 1980 to 2001, I hoped there would never be teacher abuse of any student at our school. I grieve that there was. I know there are KHS graduates who are still devastated over the way they were treated by certain KHS staff members 30 to 40 years ago. This is a terrible burden to bear; I am terribly sorry for that, and I apologize to students in that position.

Several graduates have written me directly to say that during my tenure I did not do enough to stop teacher sexual abuse of students before it happened.

Upon further discussion, they note that my administration was successful in facing difficult issues such as black-white relations and respect for gay and lesbian students. They questioned me with these words: “If you were able to confront two of the most difficult social situations which a majority of school districts refused to bring into the open, why could you not successfully confront more publicly the critical problem of sexual abuse of students?”

Let me be clear. I know that sexual abuse by a teacher against a student is the fault of that teacher alone—not the student, not the principal, nor the school. However, looking back 30 years ago from the recent awakening of this country to the call of women now to confront sexual injustice in previous decades, it is obvious that sexual abuse against students was as critical a problem in the 80s and 90s as was the practice of discriminatory suspension of black students versus white students as charged against KHS by the Office of Civil Rights in 1979 (before I became principal), or the accepted bullying of gay and lesbian students at KHS by heterosexual students. The latter accusation was one about which our administration was unaware until brought to me by both KHS students and graduates in 1998. Thanks to their input, we immediately began to address the problem.

KHS graduates have this year of 2020 suggested that had we put equal focus on a student’s right to be free of sexual abuse from faculty members, we could have more successfully aborted shame and sorrow in a certain number of our students’ lives that they did not deserve. These KHS graduates have done me the great service of opening my eyes and allowing me the hindsight of looking back over two decades to understand their criticism. These graduates suggest that just as I used the public address system to focus on interracial and gender problems within our school and our society, I could have also used the PA and the various assembly programs to focus on sexual abuse toward students. It was normal at KHS for this administration to bring many topical problems of our society to the forefront that other schools refused to handle openly. It is possible that we could have led the way in St. Louis County to place a much greater emphasis on sexual abuse. I regret I did not do more.

In saying that, however, I must point out that my administration did not turn our heads when students brought to us instances of sexual abuse by a teacher. A major case in this recent campaign to bring sexual injustice to the forefront in the Kirkwood School District is the best example of how we attempted to handle charges of faculty sexual abuse. It is the case of a teacher in the 1990s who was accused by multiple young women. This teacher was highly regarded, exceptional in his field. There had been no reason for my administration or his fellow colleagues to suspect that he was damaging young female students at our school. We were not only shocked when we found out; in a word, we were horrified. Knowing what we know now, I don’t understand what the signs were that we missed.

During Christmas vacation, I received a call from a KHS graduate then in college who said she wanted to talk to me about sexual abuse she had received from this teacher when she was at KHS. Since it was vacation time, I asked her to come to my home immediately to give testimony. She did, and I believed her. I requested the names of other young women who might have been abused and who might be willing to talk to me. She gave me names, and I requested each of those students to come to my home. Not all students charged abuse, but several did. To each of these young women I apologized for the injustice done to them by this man whom we had all trusted. I attempted to make it clear that what had happened to them was not their fault. I told them I was sorry I could not do more to ease their feelings of remorse and shame, because that’s what I felt they revealed to me. I stated again that it was not their fault.

Armed with this testimony, I called the Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and said that I would be arriving at her office on our first day back at school with testimony against this teacher. We held that meeting, and the Assistant Superintendent obtained legal counsel. She then called for the teacher to come to her office for a hearing. It was obvious during that meeting that this teacher must be dismissed immediately, with follow up meetings as to further consequences given by the district.

The next point is the most crucial issue now criticized by KHS graduates. By law, school districts in Missouri could not prosecute teachers for sexual abuse of students. Parents had to be willing to do that. Understandably, parents did not want to put their daughters through the excruciating experience of retelling the story of their abuse in open trial of the teacher. The teacher’s license to teach in Missouri schools K-12 was taken, but he was not taken to trial which could have opened the way for the greater punishment he deserved. In that era we never witnessed a parent who was willing to press charges. One critic has said to me that I should have pressed parents harder to do this. In the case of sexual abuse, especially for those times, I disagree. This had to be their family decision.

Still, looking back with the hindsight of this year 2020 and the shift in focus to the abuse of women from the silence of just a few decades ago, any lessening of sexual abuse at KHS would have been a leap forward in the culture of our school and the feeling of safety on the part of every student. Possibly the many times I spoke over the PA of treating all students with “respect and dignity” were too vague and not specific enough to enact more safety from the few faculty members who revealed predatory behavior. I would consider now making more statements to advise students to come to the administration about any act on the part of a staff member which made that student feel uncomfortable, powerless, or threatened.

I cannot end this public statement without thanking those students who have come directly to me. You said that I educated you; now you have educated me. I find I am never too old to learn to do better, to be better.
Statement of Kirkwood School District:

The Kirkwood School District (KSD) takes these allegations very seriously. We ask anyone who has information related to abuse, misconduct, or inappropriate behavior by any current or former KSD staff member to contact us. Information or statements can be given via online form at www.kirkwoodschools.org/report, call 314.213.6100, ext. 7804 or email howard.fields@kirkwoodschools.org for Dr. Howard Fields, assistant superintendent of human resources or 314.213.6100 ext. 7809 or email cindi.nelson@kirkwoodschools.org for Ms. Cindi Nelson, director of human resources. We also encourage you to contact the local police department.

KSD is also offering counseling services to survivors, please call the above numbers or complete the form at www.kirkwoodschools.org/report.

I want to thank you for your concern related to current practices and policies in place to ensure our current students know their rights and how to report abuse, misconduct, or inappropriate behavior. A list of those resources is located online at www.kirkwoodschools.org/services. All staff members are required to attend annual safe schools training as well.
We are always looking for tips and feedback. Email the author at cheryl.baehr@riverfronttimes.com.
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