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Touchy Subject

Willow Glen Middle School
Robert Scheer

Crossing Children: Willow Glen Middle School officials insist they were looking after their students' safety, yet they allowed a twice-accused molester to keep his job as girls' swim coach.

Some parents say their complaints about Willow Glen schoolteacher and swim coach Mark Carter fell on deaf ears, until he was convicted this week of batterying one of his students

By Cecily Barnes

THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD Amanda* wears a blue turtleneck and a white sweater, her long brown hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. Her mother drapes her arm around Amanda's shoulders protectively as she waits to testify. When called by the judge, Amanda stands and walks straight to the witness box, then turns to be sworn in. She doesn't cry, she doesn't hesitate and she doesn't stumble. In front of 12 strangers in the jury box, several other court personnel and her accused molester, Amanda tells a disturbing story.

One afternoon a little over a year ago, Mark Carter, Amanda's swim coach and a teacher at Willow Glen Middle School, stood behind her while she sat on the swimming pool's starting block, timing her teammates. After a minute, Carter began massaging her shoulders. While he did this, Amanda testified, Carter asked her if she was still a virgin, if her boyfriend had ever given her oral sex or if she had ever given him oral sex.

Shortly after this incident, Amanda says, she was kissing her 13-year-old boyfriend, Frank, in the yard next to the pool when Carter walked up, grabbed Frank by the collar and pushed him against the fence.

After a parade of witnesses testified last week that they had seen both of these events, a jury found Mark Carter guilty on April 14 of battery against Amanda. Carter was found not guilty of battery against Frank and the jury was split over whether he was guilty of "annoying or molesting" Amanda, a charge that involves touching or speaking inappropriately to a minor. Carter faces six months in jail, and could be fined up to $2,000. Municipal Judge Virginia Mae Days will hand down her sentence on April 25.

Antisocial Studies

MARK CARTER had been a social studies teacher and swim coach at Willow Glen Middle School since 1994. His exchange with Amanda was not the first time Carter had gotten in trouble for touching a preteen student.

In November 1995, a teacher at the school saw Carter massaging another female student's neck and shoulders and reported the incident to the school's principal. Carter was told not to touch his students, Principal Mickey Long testified.

Parents had also complained to school officials about Carter's classroom demeanor, which they said was unprofessional, inappropriate and obnoxious. They said Carter favored his female students, told inappropriate sexual stories and often swore in class.

Several parents who voiced complaints say they observed no change in Carter's teaching style, nor did were they aware of any action taken by administrators. And after Amanda told an on-campus police officer that Carter had massaged her shoulders while asking her questions about sex, the teacher was simply issued a letter and allowed to remain in the classroom for at least another month, Long's testimony confirmed.

Despite the fact that the incident was reported to school administrators Jan. 11, 1996, San Jose police were not notified for more than a week, according to testimony. While police conducted their investigation, Carter remained a full-time instructor and girls' swim coach until the Board of Education placed him on mandatory leave.

A spokesperson for San Jose Unified School District insists that its policy is to always protect the safety of the students and the rights of the employees.

"A determination is made first about whether any students are in danger," spokesperson Maureen Munroe said. "Had there been any determination that students were in danger, then the accused would be removed. If students are not perceived to be in danger, then due process will be followed.

"Our responsibility is to our employees as well as to the students. Anybody is innocent until proven guilty."

Munroe would not talk about the specifics of Carter's case, citing confidentiality rules.

"It's difficult," Amanda's mother said outside of the courtroom after her daughter had testified. "This has drawn out a very long time. She has been emotionally traumatized.

"The school handled it very poorly. They made it appear as if Amanda was a liar and an instigator. My personal opinion was that there wasn't any person [in that school] that was on her side."

Blaming the Victim

AFTER AMANDA reported her abuse at the hands of Mark Carter, rumors spread through the school that she was lying. The Willow Glen school administration did not act to protect the girl from the teasing, her mother says.

Many administrators and parents had been impressed by Carter and thought him to be an excellent teacher. They described his way with students as friendly and parental, not offensive.

After presenting a host of such character witnesses in court, all of whom testified what a great guy Carter was, his attorney, Richard Boone, admonished the jury not to trust the 12-year-old's testimony because, he said, "Who knows if she was suffering from her menses that day?"

Looking back, it seems that school officials might have had enough information about Carter to give Amanda's story some consideration, according to parents who had complained to Willow Glen administrators in the past.

Heidi Hobbs, whose son had Carter as a social studies teacher last year, says her child witnessed Carter behave in ways that subtly crossed boundaries adults should not cross with children, and which teachers definitely should not cross with their students. She says she reported what her son told her to an official at the middle school.

"There was inappropriate language," Hobbs says. "There was preferential treatment to the girls. The boys would be left in the classroom and the girls would get to sit on the lawn. He was demeaning to some of the kids. That's just the general information that came home for dinnertime conversation."

Another parent told Metro that Carter had informed her son's class that O.J. Simpson's jury found in his favor because they were mostly black, and black people won't convict each other. Carter had also told the class about a friend of his that went to Las Vegas and hired a hooker who turned out to be a transvestite, the parent said.

Shortly after the incident with Amanda, one of Carter's students told a reporter that the teacher told a Latino child, "Get your taco-eating butt over here." The student also confirmed that Carter used obscenities in class.

School officials may not have known that in 1980, Carter was arrested for having sex with a man in public, according to Santa Clara County District Attorney Mark Fickes.

The Accused's Rights

AFTER THE initial massage incident in 1995, Carter was told not to touch his students anymore, principal Mickey Long told the court.

"We have a corporeal policy for all teachers which requires no hands on students," Long said.

The same afternoon that Amanda told her principal what had happened with Carter, Long and Associate Principal Mary Lou East met with Carter and told him what Amanda had said.

Carter responded by "mostly listening," East told the jury, adding that he had "very little response."

The following day, Long issued Carter a letter which told him touching his students or talking about sex with them was not okay.

"The letter I wrote [him] was a summary of the incident," Long told the court. "I directed him to cease and desist from discussing anything of a sexual nature [with his students]."

After the letter was issued, Carter stayed at the middle school until Feb. 23 and was placed on compulsory leave by the Board of Education, in accordance with state law, on March 21.

For more than one month following the incident, Amanda returned every day to a school where Carter still taught. She was ostracized by her friends and classmates, many of whom idolized Mark Carter--presumably because of his penchant for acting "like a big kid," as one student put it. Many of the teens liked Carter and thought he was funny. They did not like Amanda for putting him down.

"They were calling me names, calling me a liar and talking about me behind my back," Amanda said in the lobby after her testimony.

Amanda's classmates testified that while they had been best friends with Amanda before the incident, they didn't like her afterward.

Her mother didn't take her out of school because she felt Amanda should not run from the unfair rumors that were circulating. However, after two months, her daughter was so traumatized that she finally pulled her out.

"[News of the incident] spread like wildfire," her mother said. "In a flash her life as she knew it was over."

Amanda's mother can't believe school administrators failed to do anything more than issue Carter a letter of admonishment. But she says that it was par for the course. When other parents made complaints about Carter's rude classroom behavior, they were told to deal with Carter directly.

School district spokesperson Maureen Munroe says she cannot respond with specifics about Carter's case, but she will say that the school acted appropriately. The school district's policy advises parents to take their issues directly to the person who they have a problem with and then submit a written complaint if their first attempt is unsuccessful.

"The safety of the students was assured and the rights of the employee were respected," Munroe said. "All due reporting was done as is mandatory with the police and child protective services."

Field Day in Court

WHILE WAITING outside the courtroom to testify the day after Amanda took the stand, Principal Mickey Long and Associate Principal Mary Lou East made small talk with Carter and his wife. Long leaned over to coo and smile at the couple's six-month-old baby, who accompanied her mother every day to the waiting room.

Throughout the five-day trial, Carter frequently slipped into the lobby to hold his baby daughter and sit with his wife, whom he married two days after the incident with Amanda. Jurors, witnesses and even attorneys couldn't help but smile at the adorable infant, who cooed in her daddy's arms.

But Carter wasn't able to maintain this caring persona throughout the entire trial. At one point he became red-faced over a disagreement with his lawyer and threatened to fire him in front of the entire jury.

Lucky for Carter, Judge Days was in her chambers at the time. But after the DA ratted on him, Carter was chastised by the judge who threatened to charge him with contempt.

Attorney Boone then delivered his closing argument, during which he suggested that Amanda's menstrual period was responsible for the charges against his client.

District Attorney Mark Fickes had a field day with that comment. He clarified to the jury that Boone was suggesting that Amanda had fabricated the entire story, changed schools and then testified under oath more than a year later "because she was menstruating on Jan. 10, 1996."

"That is absurd, and it is insulting to that little girl," he said to the jury, many of whom rested their foreheads in their hands in apparent disbelief at Boone's comment.

In his closing statement, Fickes told the jury that the case was about the abuse of power--and the betrayal of a little girl's trust. She had trusted her teacher not to hurt her and she had trusted school administrators to help her when he did, Fickes said, and all of these people let her down.

"Amanda has lost her trust in adults and in people," Fickes told the jurors. "I am going to urge you all to restore it."

* The name of the victim in this story has been changed.

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From the April 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro

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