Story Time

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

Most of the curriculum complaints at the school, though, had to do with the district's thoroughly modern "whole language" approach to teaching reading and writing. The most vocal opponent was a woman named Del Rae Perkins, who met with Maulsby and Shepard several times in the course of the 1991-92 school year to demand a return to basics in her children's education. That spring, she and another parent, Sharon Coleman, signed a letter to the district superintendent objecting to "unproven and unsubstantiated curriculum...founded on Eastern religious practices, occult practices and the New Age religion." The letter didn't make any claims of improper behavior by Shepard, but both women would later figure prominently in the abuse allegations against him.

In fact, until May 1992, few parents knew much about the counseling program at Cache La Poudre. At orientation Susan Hellner was told that Shepard would be coming into classrooms "and reading them stories about behavior problems and that kind of thing," she recalls. But she was surprised to later learn that her youngest daughter had visited Shepard's office that year for four group sessions. No one had informed her in advance about the sessions, much less asked her permission. It was just something, she was told, that all kindergarten students were required to do.

"At that point, nothing more was said," Susan Hellner says. "I was a little upset that we hadn't known. The school was always very forthright with us about their programs."

Yet the district's policy regarding counseling procedures was (and still is) quite vague. The policy doesn't require parental consent before counseling a six-year-old, although it does state that if more than "a few sessions" are required, "a parent contact will be made." Nor is there a clear line between providing "guidance" and "counseling." Shepard would later insist that, despite his title, he wasn't counseling anyone in the therapeutic sense; he was teaching.

But what was he teaching? In a 1991 letter to two inquisitive parents, Shepard explained that the Poudre R-1 guidance services at the elementary level "have no specific curriculum at this time." Instead, he relied on "my 27 years experience as a classroom teacher and counselor along with commercial programs approved and used by Poudre R-1 teachers and counselors as the basis of my approach with students."

On May 15, 1992, Del Rae Perkins and another parent, Kimmy Sanderson, met with Shepard and, for the first time, asked pointed questions about his counseling methods. Shepard denied using Pumsy, meditation, hypnosis or guided imagery. No one said anything about the physical or sexual abuse of children.

The women's interest had apparently been triggered by stories told by Kimmy Sanderson's daughter about her sessions with other children in Jack Shepard's office. They were disturbing stories, which would become even more explicit in the weeks to come, about games like "The Baby and the Blanket," in which (the girl said) Shepard would lie on the floor and Sanderson's daughter would lie on top of him like a blanket. Whatever their suspicions at that point, Perkins and Sanderson didn't share them with Shepard or any other school official. Instead, they began to seek out other parents, including the parents of the other children the Sanderson girl had named.

Within days parents began to meet at various homes around Laporte to discuss Jack Shepard.

Within a week several parents had pulled their kids out of school, and Perkins, Sanderson and Sharon Coleman had gone to the sheriff's office to file a formal complaint.

Within two weeks Shepard was put on administrative leave, and Ron Maulsby sent a letter to every parent who had children at Cache La Poudre urging them to stay calm.

"I have debated with myself a great deal whether or not to write this letter," the principal wrote. "My greatest concern is that people will jump to inaccurate conclusions before all the facts surrounding these accusations are discovered."

From the start, the child-abuse investigation of Jack Shepard was plagued with difficulties. It wasn't that nobody was talking. Too many people were talking, and what they had to say didn't make sense.

Over the past fifteen years, a series of sensational, misguided abuse investigations at schools and daycare centers across the country have demonstrated how easily children can be led into making the most outrageous and improbable claims, particularly when the questioning is conducted by a hysterical parent or an overzealous investigator. Studies have shown that young children are often quick to adopt scenarios suggested by others and can recite vivid, detailed "memories" of events that never happened. The situation in Laporte called for extreme caution, but the parental rumor mill was already going full blast before investigators could begin to check out the children's stories.

To some extent, officials fanned the flames themselves by encouraging parents to exchange information about the case. Maulsby's letter invited people to come forward with any evidence that would "shed light" on the accusations. A sheriff's deputy named John Toppenberg met with a group of parents and encouraged them to talk among themselves and find out what happened. Talk among themselves they did, and the facts became more and more muddled.

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