Your Courts, Their Secrets
School district ignored warnings, then silenced girls fondled by teacher
Seattle Times staff reporters
She was 10 years old, a fourth-grader in the Northshore School District, when John Carl Leede began fondling her, according to court records.
He was a teacher, but not hers. He would spy her in the school library, approach, turn her away from him and begin grabbing, rubbing her breasts. She'd try to break away, but he would yank her back and put her in a kind of headlock.
The girl told her mother, and the mother called the principal, Ed Young.
It all could have ended there — in the spring of 1996, years before Leede was finally convicted of assaulting girls. Young, the principal at Kokanee Elementary near Woodinville, could have investigated and found other students with similar stories.
Instead, Young called the girl to his office. When she got there, she found the principal and Leede, and no one else. Not her mother. Not a counselor. Young questioned her — and Leede explained it all away. A "misplaced hug," he called it, saying he was a "touchy-feely" kind of guy.
Young didn't discipline Leede. He didn't report the matter to police or Child Protective Services. He didn't even write the girl's story down and file it, to help spot any pattern. His next evaluation of Leede offered only praise, saying: "I have appreciated his professionalism and efforts in helping us 'move outside the box.' "
The girl's mother was stunned at Young's response. The girl would later tell police: "This was brushed under the table." She would become violent and defiant, say Leede was what she got for being "a good girl," and scratch her wrists with broken glass.
This family and two others filed a claim that accused the school district and four principals of ignoring repeated warnings about Leede. But you haven't read about that claim before, or of how it was quietly settled for $700,000. A confidentiality agreement ordered documents destroyed, computer records purged, and lips and court records sealed.
David Spicer, the families' attorney, said he was "outraged" and "beyond amazed" at the district's failure to protect students from Leede. But the secrecy agreement, he said, "was a condition the school district had, and we just had to live with it."
Three of Leede's victims — including the girl called into Young's office — cannot say a disparaging word about the teacher who assaulted them or the district that made it possible. Speak ill, and they face a fine of $10,000. The secrecy agreement even restricts what they can tell any therapist.
In the victims' words
"The first time he did it I was shocked, but the more he did it, the more convinced I became it was a friendly hug. In my heart I knew it was wrong. ... I am embarrassed so much about this, and I feel confused and sad. We trusted him so much."
"I did discuss this with my friends, and we knew it was wrong and weird but we didn't report it. I knew my mom had been friends with Mr. Leede and I wasn't sure I'd be believed."
"At first when Mr. Leede would touch me I was shy and shocked, but as time wore on I became more bold and would tell him loudly — 'Stop' — and actually push him away, anything to get him to stop. Pretty much everyone in the class would see this, though he never did it when a parent was around. It was such a common thing that the class just grew to accept the touching. ... I felt dirty because of this ... Some of the other girls were actually so used to this behavior, they would defend him!"
Source: Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney's Office
The Seattle Times unearthed this claim — and the allegations against Young, now principal at Skyline High School in Sammamish — as part of a continuing investigation of sealed court records. A reporter came across a lawsuit against Leede that had been sealed improperly and that referred to a secret settlement involving the Northshore School District.
The families' claim and thousands of other documents were obtained in the past several months through public-disclosure requests and a motion to unseal. Those records tell the story of how one teacher fondled students day after day, year after year, with principal after principal doing little or nothing to stop him.
A teacher pursues his "educational asperarions"
Carl Leede, now 55, taught full time in the Northshore School District for more than 20 years. His personnel file reflects a tumultuous career, making any hands-off treatment all the more baffling.
He applied to the district in 1976, after teaching for two years in Kitsap County. His letter, peppered with typos and misspellings, said he wanted to reduce his "commutation time" and pursue his "educational asperarions." Northshore hired him the following year.
Leede eventually worked at five elementary schools in the district, which straddles King and Snohomish counties and is considered one of the state's best. His students were mostly fifth- and sixth-graders, kids 11 or 12 years old.
His early reviews were mixed. One principal praised Leede's enthusiasm but panned his work ethic and arrogance: "He often assumes he has a better answer than anyone else has ever devised." Leede called the evaluation an "unfortunate and unnecessary slam and assault upon my career" and even filed a grievance.
Another principal attended a math lesson in which Leede let students do whatever they wanted. Some read ski magazines. Some doodled. Others talked. The principal met with Leede and suggested the time be used more productively. Leede stormed out before she could finish, her notes say.
With time, Leede's reviews shined. But other parts of his personnel file reveal a divide among parents, teachers and principals. To some, Leede was lazy, petulant, reckless. To others, he was creative and caring. Some parents called Leede the best teacher their kids ever had. Others pulled their children from his class.
Leede tickled kids and kissed their cheeks. Was this good-natured fun? Or was it creepy? Other times, his conduct left no doubt, veering into cruelty or boorishness, according to personnel records, a district investigative report and, ultimately, police statements.
He used profanity and made sexual remarks in front of kids. He pointed to one girl and said, "This is an example of pretty, but not smart," then to another girl and said, "This is an example of smart, but not pretty." In a teachers' meeting, he went down his class list and categorized each student as "dumber than a stump" or "a little sh — ."
He called boys "jerkballs." One wrote Leede a letter, saying: "Why do you treat the boys like crud?" He hugged the girls, beckoning with "Come here, gorgeous." He'd remark to other adults about the girls' developing bodies and predict who'd get pregnant first.
Once, according to his personnel file, he made students announce their test scores, then he charted them on a board, designating "geniuses" and "idiots." Another time, according to police reports, he had students spell words such as "ejaculation," "pubic" and "tampon," put them in an essay, and read the essay aloud to the class, using a microphone.
Early warnings: "Principals don't like problems"
Warnings of Leede's touching go back at least to the 1980s. Cheryl Cone warned two principals herself — and would have warned others, if she'd known Leede was still around.
Now retired in South Dakota, Cone gave this account to The Seattle Times:
Cone used to be a teaching assistant at Woodinville Annex, a school that's now closed. She walked into Leede's classroom one day — in 1989, she believes — and saw him tickling a girl lying on a table. When Cone appeared, Leede stopped tickling. But the whole time he talked to Cone, he kept his hands on the girl's breasts.
Cone was dumbfounded. She told Anne Boone, the principal. Boone replied that she would take care of it — but Cone never heard anything back.
A few years later, Cone saw somewhere that Leede was now at Woodmoor Elementary: "I thought, 'Shoot, what's he still doing around?' " She called Woodmoor's principal: "He sounded really kind of ticked off that I'd brought up a problem. Principals don't like problems, because some of these people have tenure and they have the teachers union behind them."
Years later, news reports said an unnamed teacher was accused of fondling girls at a different Northshore school. Cone checked a registry and saw Leede's name: "I couldn't believe that he was still there and in contact with kids. I felt that I'd been betrayed. They were just pushing it aside.
"How many people were damaged along the way? It's just sickening."
At Woodinville Annex, Boone, the principal, received at least three warnings besides Cone's, according to police and school records.
In the late 1980s, a teacher saw Leede holding a girl on his lap, face to face, tight. The teacher "was so shocked that, if it had been her daughter, Carl would have no hair left on his head," she recounted years later. The teacher told Boone, but Boone never got back to her.
Another teaching assistant saw Leede touch a girl's breasts. She told Boone, who replied that she had scheduled a speaker on inappropriate touching. When the assistant checked back, Boone said Leede hadn't shown up for the training.
Leede's personnel file includes four evaluations by Boone, all positive. None mentions inappropriate touching. Boone called Leede a "very creative educator" and said: "The emotional well-being of the students is an important goal for Mr. Leede."
Boone, now retired in Hawaii, said she remembered three complaints from staff members about Leede's touching. She didn't note them in his personnel file but did tell him once to stop putting girls on his lap: "He sort of admitted it wasn't a good idea, but said there was nothing meant by it.
"I really believed that he was stupid, that he wasn't thinking about what he was doing. But I didn't think he was molesting anyone," Boone said. "If I'd gotten one complaint from a parent, he would have been gone."
"Hi Carl: I circled the area that you may want to look at"
By the time the 1998-99 school year began at Kokanee Elementary, Leede's behavior had become, in the words of a subsequent legal claim, "essentially predatory," so bold that he was fondling some girls almost every day.
Girls tried thwarting him by wearing loose clothing, or crossing their chest when he approached from behind, or elbowing him in the stomach. One girl dreaded sitting at the computer: "It was like I was trapped," she told an investigator. "There was no place to get away." One student said Leede warned girls not to tell or he'd get them in trouble with the principal. Some doubted they would be believed anyway.
When the 1998-99 school year began, Ed Young was coming off a year spent as the district's interim director of personnel. Now he was returning to Kokanee, where he had been principal for three years. Called in one review "a sincere believer in teacher empowerment," Young presented written goals for the year about letting teachers "think outside of the box in a risk-free environment."
Leede was beginning his fifth year at Kokanee. He taught fifth- and sixth-graders in an alternative program, called PACE, that emphasized parental involvement.
By this time, Northshore principals had already been warned of inappropriate touching by Leede at least a dozen times, personnel files and other records show. At least five warnings had reached Young. When he took the personnel position, Young told his fill-in to keep an eye on Leede, saying there'd been reports of touching, according to school records.
Young canceled an interview for this story and didn't return subsequent calls. Leede, who lives in Seattle, declined comment.
The 1998-99 school year offered one chance after another for the school district to put a stop to Leede.
October: A father saw Leede touch his daughter's breast in a school hallway. The newspaper isn't naming the father to protect his daughter's identity, but he gave this account:
He told Leede then and there: "If you ever touch my daughter like that again, one of us is going to the hospital and one of us is going to jail." That night, the father said, "I was in tears for not protecting my daughter better." He met with Young the next day, and Young told him: I'll take care of it. You don't need to put anything in writing. But later, the father said, Young claimed he couldn't do anything without a written complaint.
The girl's mother also met with Young. "Ed said that Carl had a clean file, that ... nobody had ever complained about him," she later told police.
After these meetings, Young sent Leede a note:
November: During Thanksgiving week one teacher saw Leede with his hands on a girl's backside. Another saw Leede hug and kiss a girl. Both reported what they saw to Young on Dec. 1. The principal again referred Leede to the pamphlet, according to law-enforcement records.
December: The girl who had been called into Young's office in 1996 told a Bothell police detective what Leede had done. That detective called Young, who told police he remembered Leede hugging a girl in the library. He wrote the detective: "I gave Mr. Leede a warning about touching, shared the district's policy on appropriate and inappropriate touching and directed him to not do it again. He agreed and we had no further incidents."
The detective closed the case, and told the girl that her "perceptions of what took place might have magnified the actual contact," according to his report.
(Families filing a claim against the district later seize upon Young's words — "we had no further incidents" — and allege that he "knew this information not only to be misleading but categorically untrue." Instead of protecting students, they say, Young "sought once again to minimize the conduct and instead protect and cover for Leede.")
January: The father who had met with Young in October turned in a written grievance: "I told him, 'Here's your bloody complaint. Now do something.' " The letter said Leede was still hugging children. Young wrote the father back: "I have spoken with him about your concerns and advised him on the district's policy on safe and appropriate touching. ... The inappropriate behavior will stop."
Young later described his talk with Leede to a district investigator: "I told him, 'You cannot hug from the front' and showed him the side hug."
March: Because of declining enrollment in Leede's Kokanee class, Northshore was considering moving him to Woodin Elementary next fall. But Woodin's principal had a concern. He asked the district's personnel director if Leede had a problem with touching students, according to a memo the director wrote.
The director got ahold of Ed Young and asked him. "Ed replied that he did not," the director's memo says.
The transfer went through.
A father tells police: "It all makes sense now"
In April 1999, a seventh-grader began having nightmares about the teacher who had fondled her — "about once a day," in her words — in fifth and sixth grades at Kokanee.
The girl told her mother what Leede had done. "I was scared to death," the mother later told police. "I felt horrible, that I'd blown it as a parent."
The mother began making calls and discovered that Leede had also fondled a friend of her daughter's. "It all makes sense now," that girl's father told police. He remembered asking his daughter: "Why are you wearing this heavy sweatshirt to school on the hottest day of the year?"
This girl's father called the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office — initiating the first comprehensive investigation of Leede, 10 years after Cheryl Cone reported him standing there, hands on a student's breasts.
Police arrested Leede on May 20, 1999. He didn't seem surprised or shocked when told he was suspected of child molestation, according to a police report. "I do hug children," he told a detective. But Leede said there was nothing sexual about it. He considered hugs important to a child's development.
A mother writes: "You did this. You live with it"
News of the arrest touched off a series of events colored by secrecy and damage control.
Woodin Elementary parents complained of Leede's pending transfer to their school. A district spokeswoman assured them: "We will not knowingly or consciously place students in an unhealthy environment."
The school district placed Leede on paid leave and conducted an investigation to see if he should be fired. A month after Leede's arrest the investigator completed a confidential report that described how the teacher had repeatedly fondled girls. The report listed eight instances in which administrators had been warned.
Still, in news reports afterward, district officials minimized Leede's misconduct and insisted that officials followed proper procedures in dealing with him.
In August 1999, the district's general counsel wrote a confidential memorandum saying the failure of some administrators to document complaints had obscured Leede's "pattern of misconduct." He also cited "inadequate management skills" for what happened at Kokanee, bemoaning how some administrators shy away from confrontation.
A week later, the district reprimanded Young, saying his "inadequate performance" contributed to the district's "failure to appreciate" Leede's "touching issues" earlier. The reprimand blamed Young for inadequate investigation ("You prejudged the intentions of Mr. Leede"); inadequate documentation ("You relied upon recall from memory rather than writing down information at the time"); inadequate supervision; and for failure to report complaints to personnel.
But Young's annual evaluations made no mention of these failings. One praised his handling of a meeting with parents after Leede's arrest. Another lauded "the integrity with which [he] has handled the challenges of leadership and supervision."
The two sides settled, quietly. Instead of firing Leede, the district agreed to pay him $55,000 for another year's work, to be done away from students. He would be paid even if convicted of criminal charges, the agreement says. Leede, in turn, agreed to resign on June 30, 2000.
When the media disclosed the employment settlement in October 1999, the mother of the fourth-grader who had been called into Young's office wrote Karen Forys, Northshore's superintendent:
"Your settlement does not right a wrong. It just begs for it to go away, to be swept under the rug. It tells the victims that the school district does not care and that coming forth to tell the truth, no matter how painful, doesn't result in any justice, so why should they bother? Is this a proud example to set for our students? Does this show principle or expediency? Does this show courage or fear? You did this. You live with it."
Forys wrote back, saying the outcome of any hearing would be uncertain and that fighting Leede's appeal would cost more than settling. Northshore avoided further "stress and pain" for any victims or witnesses, Forys wrote, and the settlement assured Leede would not teach in the district again.
In March 2000, Leede reached a plea deal with prosecutors and was convicted of seven misdemeanors, including six counts of assault.
The sentencing judge received more than 80 letters of support for Leede, from family, friends, parents, students. They said Leede imbued a love of reading and helped kids overcome their fear of public speaking. He learned sign language to communicate with a deaf child. He spent 45 minutes untangling a hairbrush from one student's hair.
But other letters wrote of trust betrayed and damage done. The girl with the nightmares described sitting in the dark, trying to cut the dirt and germs off her body with a serrated knife, and how, at 14, she used black permanent marker to write "ugly" all over her skin.
Leede was sentenced on June 8, 2000, to eight months in jail. His sentence required him to surrender his teaching certificate, register as a sex offender and complete a 36-month program of "psycho-sexual deviancy counseling" that used "controlled electroshock, boredom tapes and negative olfactory stimulation."
Three weeks later, Leede's resignation took effect. His letter said: "I have enjoyed my tenure in the District and will miss the teaching aspect of education. I believe, however, that it is now best that I pursue other career interests."
Destroy documents, purge files, zip lips
In December 2000, the families of three girls — the girl called into Young's office, the girl with the nightmares, the girl with the heavy sweatshirts — wrote a "claim letter" notifying the school district of their intent to sue.
The letter predicted a jury would be "incensed" at how the school district and four principals had failed to protect students from Leede.
Soon after, the attorneys for these families learned that Leede was selling his house. To preserve his assets, they quickly filed a separate suit in King County Superior Court and obtained an order attaching his home. The only defendants named in this lawsuit were Leede and his wife.
The claim against the district, the principals and Leede went to mediation and was settled in 2001, with the families receiving $700,000.
The settlement agreement demanded secrecy. It required the families and their attorneys to gather whatever documents they had about their allegations, and turn them over to be destroyed. They also had to "purge all computer records" related to their claim.
Even though the Northshore School District is a public entity — making its finances public record — the agreement forbade the parties from disclosing the settlement amount. It also prohibited any party from disparaging another, and set the penalty for any violation at $10,000.
Spicer, the families' attorney, said his clients consented to secrecy because they wanted to settle. Otherwise, these "very vulnerable girls" would have been exposed to depositions and a possible trial, he said.
The King County lawsuit against Leede was also sealed, based upon a motion that said the parties wanted the outcome to be secret. Court Commissioner Carlos Velategui went along, signing an order that violated the rules governing open court records.
It was this order — the only part of the file kept open — that caught the eye of a Seattle Times reporter and led to this story. The newspaper filed a motion and got the file opened this year, and obtained other documents about Leede and the district through a host of public-disclosure requests.
Forys, the superintendent, would not answer questions for this story. Nor would Northshore's general counsel, Joe McKamey.
In November 1999 — six months after Leede's arrest — Forys was named Washington's Superintendent of the Year.
Ed Young left the Northshore School District in 2000 to take a job in the Mukilteo School District. He retired there in 2004, leaving as principal of Kamiak High School.
Last year he returned to school administration. He's now principal of Skyline High School in Sammamish, one of the state's top high schools.
Recently, a reporter told the father who complained to Young in October 1998 about the principal's newest job.
"Are you kidding me?" the father said. He laughed bitterly, then paused. "Oh, wow. He's a good politician."
Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Researcher David Turim contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company
Seattle Times Special