Avonworth handling of teacher riles parents

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Nearly 50 worried parents questioned Avonworth School District officials Monday night about administrators' handling of allegations made in 2009 against an elementary school music teacher charged Wednesday with raping a young female relative who later recanted.

In addition to the rape charges, Ben Avon resident Walter Street, 59, is facing accusations from teachers and students that he inappropriately touched young students at Avonworth Elementary, including holding several young girls in his lap. That likely wouldn't have happened if school officials had restricted his access to young children and had kept a closer eye on his activities, even if the initial accusations were never proved, parents told Avonworth school administrators during Monday's school board meeting.

"You kept a man who was accused of hurting a little kid and you kept him with our babies," said Rhodora Huffmyer of Ohio Township, whose 5-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son had Mr. Street as a music teacher. "Why wasn't he moved up to the high school, where the kids at least would have a fighting chance? You can move him anywhere you want and you kept him with our babies."

But with no actual charges, much less a conviction, resulting from the 2009 allegations, the district could do nothing, said school solicitor William Andrews.

"This witness recanted -- there was no way to take action," Mr. Williams said. "You can't take action without a witness, and no such witness existed."

Thomas Ralston, Avonworth School District superintendent, said they have been instructed by the police and by their solicitor not to discuss the details of the allegations against Mr. Street, pending an ongoing investigation. He said school officials would explain their actions between 2009 and Mr. Street's arrest last week when the police deemed it appropriate.

Mr. Street, a former high school band director, came to Avonworth in 1989 to teach music and direct the chorus. Mr. Street taught chorus before and after school, as well as piano lessons, and was often alone with fourth- and fifth-grade students, according to Rebecca Stetser, who has three children in the district and recently sent an open letter to school officials questioning their handling of the 2009 allegations.

The more recent investigation began in January when fellow teachers told administrators that Mr. Street was touching students inappropriately in the cafeteria, such as holding them in his lap and hugging them. When administrators searched Mr. Street's school laptop, they discovered a letter acknowledging a sexual relationship with the young woman, now 22, who had accused him in 2009 of raping her beginning when she was 10 years old.

The young woman, who was 17 when she accused Mr. Street, recanted her testimony twice during police questioning. After being shown the letter in which Mr. Street acknowledged sexual relations with her, however, she told police her initial accusations were true.

Mr. Street was then arrested, and has since been charged with 12 counts of rape, aggravated indecent assault, incest, corruption of minors and related offenses, according to police.

"We became aware of something, we acted on it and we're here tonight because the system worked to keep your children safe," Mr. Ralston said.

But that was scant comfort to some parents. Discovering this week that her two daughters were among the children Mr. Street had held in his lap left Cathy Burnheimer of Ohio Township feeling overwhelmed, she said.

"It makes me sick," she said, struggling to hold back tears. "What did you do to protect my daughters?"

If the district's financial manager, for instance, had been accused of some impropriety with the finances of a private business, but not school funds, wouldn't school officials still have watched him carefully with district accounts, asked parent Scott Brady.

They likely wouldn't leave their wallets with a person accused of financial impropriety, so why was it a good idea to leave young children with someone accused of sexual misconduct with a young girl, Ms. Stetser asked.

"He picked up every girl in my daughter's kindergarten class," she said. "He put every 5-year-old in his lap."

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.

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