The Perry School District in Perry, OK has agreed to pay $3.5 million to the families of 14 youngsters who were inappropriately touched by an octogenarian teacher’s aide. The incidents occurred at the Perry Elementary School, and the girls involved were in the fifth grade. A total of 16 students have sued the district over the aide’s behavior, but at least 22 girls are believed to have been molested.
Lengthy Hugs and Inappropriate Touches
The former teacher’s aide, Arnold Cowen, now 87, fondled the children in 2016 and 2017, in what arrest affidavits described as “lengthy hugs and inappropriate touches.” Cowen was charged with 20 counts of indecent or lewd acts to children, as well as one count of possessing child pornography.
After pleading guilty, he is now serving a 10-year sentence, which at his age is likely for life. The school’s former principal was put on five years’ probation for failure to report Cowen’s misconduct. The fifth-grade teacher was also charged with failing to report the molestation. The attorney for the children said the girls were “silenced” by faculty and teachers.
Looking the Other Way
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said the situation in Perry “is a stark reminder to anyone who works in our schools that it is unconscionable to say nothing or look the other way when there is an allegation of an adult victimizing a child.”
The 2017 accusations against Cowen were not the first, but the principal told Perry police officers investigating the more recent allegations that she did not notify the police because the accusations had been made before and she and her staff deemed them false. The principal and the staff determined the students had made up the story.
Cowen’s arrest affidavit states that one student who claimed she had been sexually abused wrote a description on a note found by a teacher, and was sent to see the principal. However, the principal was not in at the time, and the student was sent back to class where Cowen was the teacher’s aide. Another student said that she and other victims told the principal about the incidents several times, but the principal told the girls just to give Cowen a fist bump.
In all, 13 students were found to have complained about Cowen in the past with no action taken. The girls told a similar story – Cowen was fondling their breasts and whispering suggestive comments to them when he was supposed to help them with their assignments. It wasn’t until two victims told their parents, who contacted the police, that anything was done. Once the allegations became public, more victims came forward.
Reporting is a Legal and Moral Obligation
Hofmeister made it clear that anyone working in the schools has a legal and moral obligation to report such behavior to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. “It is not your responsibility to determine the validity of a claim, regardless of where it originates. Swift and proper reporting of suspected inappropriate behavior is vital,“ according to Hofmeister.
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