Bitter Lesson

John Hellner waited five years for his day in court. Last week it took less than two hours for a Fort Collins jury to decide that Hellner and eight other parents hadn't defamed a local elementary-school counselor whom they'd accused of abusing their children.

For Hellner, the verdict was grim vindication in a bizarre legal ordeal that has pitted school administrators and the Colorado Education Association, the powerful teachers' union, against a group of parents who'd raised concerns about the methods of Jack Shepard, a counselor at Cache La Poudre Elementary School in Laporte.

"It was a tough case in some ways," Hellner says, "but the jury was really fair. I thanked them afterward, and one of them told me, 'I just ruled on the facts. It was obvious.'"

But little about the Shepard case has seemed obvious since it first erupted in the spring of 1992, when several Laporte children began telling their parents strange stories about meetings with Shepard in his office. The children described taking "trips" with Shepard, being attacked by alligators or playing games with the counselor that seemed to involve inappropriate touching ("Story Time," June 12).

Frantic parents took their children out of school, and the Larimer County Sheriff's Office and local social-service investigators launched an investigation into the matter. Shepard, a longtime educator who's emphatically denied any wrongdoing, was placed on administrative leave. But the official investigation uncovered no clear evidence of abuse, and the district attorney's office declined to file charges.

Shepard, who has since returned to Cache La Poudre as a special-education teacher, went to court to seal the records of the abuse investigation. In 1993 he filed a lawsuit against seventeen parents, seeking damages for malicious prosecution, defamation and interference with his contract. Throughout the legal battle, he's been represented by staff attorneys for the CEA, who've accused parents of "coaching" children to tell wild stories in an effort to get Shepard fired and change the school's curriculum.

The parents say they were guilty only of taking their concerns about Shepard to the proper authorities. They claim that the CEA had another agenda in funding Shepard's unusual suit--to silence or intimidate parents who'd dared to question why a school counselor was meeting with their children without their knowledge or consent. Nine of the parents were eventually dropped from the suit or settled out of court, but others elected to litigate, at their own expense, rather than relinquish their right to countersue.

Last week, after six days of testimony and argument that sometimes stretched into the evening, a jury found the remaining nine defendants not liable for more than fifty claims--including defamation, false reporting and conspiracy--brought by Shepard. The teacher prevailed on a single count of outrageous conduct against one woman, who'd admitted calling his home late at night to accuse him of harming her daughter, and was awarded one dollar. (The Fort Collins Coloradan, the only daily newspaper that covered the long-delayed trial, incorrectly reported both the name of the defendant and the reason for the award.)

"Everyone kept saying what a complex case it was," says Dan Lynch, the attorney representing Hellner and three other parents. "It was so complex that the jury said 'no' fifty times and 'yes' only once."

Still, the verdict was scant consolation to the parents, many of whom have spent tens of thousands of dollars on the case and on therapy sessions for their children. Seven of the defendants are currently pursuing lawsuits in state or federal court against Shepard, the CEA and various officials involved in the abuse investigation.

Shepard declined comment on the verdict.


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