Story Time

How the bizarre child-abuse investigation of a school counselor became a crusade against troublesome parents -- courtesy of the Colorado Education Association.

Shepard's suit has dragged through Larimer County District Court for more than four years now; a trial date is set for September. Nearly half the parents have been dropped from the suit or have settled out of court for four- or five-figure sums paid by their homeowners' insurance. For the rest--including the Hellners, who are paying for their defense out of their own pockets--it's been a financially and emotionally draining nightmare. None of the children involved still attend Cache La Poudre, but the ongoing litigation has dogged their lives, too.

Throughout it all, Shepard has been represented by attorneys from the Colorado Education Association, the powerful teachers' organization that claims 30,000 members statewide. The parents' lawyers claim that the CEA is funding the litigation and that the group has a broader agenda in the case beyond clearing Shepard's name--an agenda that has to do with intimidating and silencing parents perceived to be critics of the public-school system.

"I believe this lawsuit is pretextual," says Dale Parrish, a Denver attorney who represents four parents named in Shepard's suit. "The references to curriculum in the complaint are a good indicator of the CEA having a completely different ax to grind."

"O.J. Simpson's had two trials in the time it's taken us to get a trial date," adds John Hellner. "It's obvious that they don't want us to go to trial."

Jack Shepard did not respond to Westword's requests for comment about the case. CEA staff attorneys and boardmembers declined to comment as well because of what spokeswoman Deborah Fallin calls the "complicated" pending litigation. And there's a lot of litigating to be mum about.

In addition to Shepard's suit in Fort Collins, seven parents have recently filed countersuits in Denver against Shepard, the CEA, and various school and county officials, claiming the CEA has persisted in trying to punish parents with Shepard's libel suit long after it became clear that the suit is essentially groundless. One of the countersuits cites a 1997 deposition of the lead police investigator in the abuse case, Sergeant Tim Palmer, which states that he believed there was enough evidence five years ago to recommend charging Shepard with sexual assault on a child.

These are issues that the CEA, which has apparently spent hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing Shepard's case, simply won't talk about--not outside of a courtroom, anyway. "We're not commenting on the allegations in their complaints at this point in time," says Jeffrey Sandman, an attorney representing CEA in the countersuits. "We're prepared to vigorously defend against those allegations, and the case will be tried in court."

Nothing would please the parents more. Despite the credibility problems of their children's stories, most of them are still convinced that something went seriously wrong in Cache La Poudre's counseling office five years ago, something school officials have never acknowledged. They have questions about the way the investigation was conducted and the CEA's role in the affair that no one has answered.

"I believe, not just for our sakes but for our children's sakes and the community, it needs to be in trial in an open courtroom up here so people will know that the children did say this," says Ginger Lawrence --who, unlike most of the parents, still lives in Laporte. "It wasn't put in their heads or made up by parents. It wasn't an attempt to change the Poudre R-1 curriculum. People have a right to know that was all false."

A few weeks ago Shepard's attorneys offered to drop the Lawrences and the Hellners from the libel suit for a token payment of a dollar each. The settlement fell apart over concerns that it would involve an entry of judgment against the parents, none of whom want to give up their right to countersue.

"I could walk out of this anytime I wanted without paying anything," John Hellner says, "but I would have to admit I did something wrong, which I didn't do. This is my country, this is my Constitution, these are my First Amendment rights--and these are my children. It's not their children, to take into a school and do whatever they want with them."

All he wants, Hellner says, is to know what happened. "If we could expose the truth," he says, "what was going on and why--if it could be admitted, we would walk away satisfied."

According to the mission statement of the Poudre School District R-1, "a healthy self-concept is important to overall achievement." Building that concept from an early age is the whole rationale for having full-time counselors in elementary schools--a trend that began as an experiment in the 1960s and has become standard procedure in many school districts in the 1990s.

At the elementary level, counselors don't spend much time on career guidance; nor are they long-term therapists. In Poudre R-1, most of their work consists of consulting with teachers and parents, visiting classrooms to encourage proper school behavior and conducting individual or small-group sessions to work on particular issues--divorce or other turmoil at home, for example, or the grief and anxieties stirred by the death of a relative or fellow classmate.

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