Story Time

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

Sandman replied that he didn't represent Cooper and that the CEA, even though it was paying Cooper's salary, wasn't representing Shepard: "Notwithstanding Ms. Cooper's employment by the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Education Association as an organization has no involvement with such representation, and Ms. Cooper acts independently as counsel to Mr. Shepard."

The parents' attorneys found Sandman's explanation baffling. How could the CEA not be involved? A private investigator hired by the CEA had visited Laporte in the wake of the abuse investigation and interviewed witnesses. Sandman's firm had represented Shepard in his efforts to seal the records of the abuse investigation, a service that Waltz claims was paid for by the CEA. Within 24 hours of the records' being sealed, Cooper filed the lawsuit on Shepard's behalf, and he has continued to be represented by a team of CEA attorneys ever since. And when depositions were taken of parents who had relocated to Minnesota and Wisconsin, attorneys for the NEA affiliates in those states appeared on behalf of Shepard--adding to parents' fears that they were fighting not simply Jack Shepard but a huge, well-connected organization.

"Every pleading, including the original complaint, has the CEA's name on it," notes Arthur Kutzer, attorney for parents Tim and Chris Kannenberg. When Shepard was deposed, Kutzer adds, "he said he doesn't have any information as to who said what about him. He's relying completely on the CEA to tell him who to sue and for what. It was the CEA that gathered the information and told him, 'We believe you have a claim against these people.'"

Several parents and attorneys involved in the lawsuit argue that the CEA was eager to make examples of Shepard's accusers in order to discourage other uppity parents from raising a stink over teachers or curriculum they believed were harming their kids. Shepard's complaint devotes considerable attention to the curriculum objections raised by some of the defendants, even though those objections, extreme as they may have been, were perfectly legal. A later filing even accuses Del Rae Perkins of being "affiliated" with Robert Simonds's Christian parent advocacy group, Citizens for Excellence in Education, which Shepard's attorneys describe ominously as "a religious-based organization dedicated to attempting to pressure public schools into adoption of a particular religious educational philosophy."

Simonds says his group has no record that the Perkinses were ever members of CEE, but he adds that he's not surprised the CEA is taking the offensive against outspoken parents. He's heard of NEA affiliates filing suits in curriculum disputes elsewhere, he says. "That's the new thing now--threaten the parents, and that will have a chilling effect on parents across the country," he says. "Christians are literally being persecuted from every side."

But if protecting the school's curriculum from Christian conspirators was the real issue, then there's little logic in the list of people Shepard chose to sue. Many of them hadn't even known each other before the abuse investigation and hadn't raised any objections to their kids' education. Some, including the Hellners, say they didn't even attend the parent meetings where most of the rumor-mongering occurred. What they had in common was that most of them had been represented by Dale Parrish at the time he filed his "immunity notice" with the school district--a necessary step in preserving the parents' right to sue but not a formal lawsuit.

Over the past four years Shepard's libel case has taken a tortuous path through Judge William Dressel's Larimer County courtroom. Defense attorneys have complained bitterly that Shepard's attorneys were allowed access to sealed records and to county officials involved in the abuse investigation while a court order prohibited similar access for the parents. They have expressed outrage at an incident that occurred during one deposition, when Shepard was observed massaging attorney Cooper's neck and shoulders, to the dismay of parents already worked up over his alleged "touching" of children. At one point last year they even filed a petition with the Colorado Supreme Court to do something about the failure of Judge Dressel, who'd been ill for months, to rule on several crucial motions, but the petition was denied.

Kutzer says he has no idea why the case has been so bogged down in delays. "I've always found Judge Dressler to be a very good judge--very strict, moves cases along," he says. "This case is an anomaly. There's something seriously wrong."

The defense seemed to have scored an important victory early last year, though, when Shepard was required to present at a hearing evidence of "the manner, time, place and context" in which the allegedly defamatory statements were made. His side presented two live witnesses, sheriff's officer Tim Palmer and Social Services employee Patti Dean, as well as several affidavits and transcripts of meetings. But statements to official investigators are usually considered privileged--indeed, their attorneys argue that the parents had a duty to report any legitimate suspicions of child abuse to the authorities--and Dressler ruled that the overwhelming majority of the statements the parents supposedly made dealt with "matters of public interest" and were constitutionally protected.

In other words, Shepard would have to prove malice--that the parents knew their accusations were false when they made them or acted with "reckless disregard" for the truth. That's a tall order, defense attorneys say, in light of the explicit accusations of abuse several of the children made to Dean and Palmer.

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