ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Teachers play an incredibly important role in children’s lives.
Perhaps their most fundamental responsibility is to make sure the kids entrusted to them are safe when they are in school, five days per week, six or seven hours per day.
That’s why law enforcement officials in Rochester, New York are so baffled and upset by the lack of cooperation they received from several teachers and school administrators who had worked with Matthew LoMaglio, an elementary gym teacher who was convicted last month of sexually molesting an 8-year-old male student during the 2006-07 school year.
Many in the community were also surprised and disappointed that more than 20 educators wrote to the court in the pre-sentencing phase, expressing support for LoMagio but little or no sympathy for the young victim.
“Some of the people (on the school staff) who were cooperative told us there was talk at school, sort of like ‘Are you for the teacher or for the student,’” Kyle Rossi, the assistant district attorney who tried the case against LoMaglio, told EAGnews. “It was very disappointing to make contact with teachers who wouldn’t give us the time of day until they were instructed to.
“I would say that, being in that position, they have a special duty to recognize issues and protect kids. I would think it has more do to with ignorance than anything else.”
LoMaglio, 37, was found guilty in November of second degree sexual conduct against a child and endangering the welfare of a child, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Last week he was sentenced to four years in prison by New York State Supreme Court Justice Joanne Winslow.
The victim’s mother had been worried about her son and his relationship with LoMaglio since 2006-07, when the boy was a second-grader and a student in LoMaglio’s gym class at Rochester School 19. The victim reportedly had nightmares about being raped by the teacher, although he never came forward with allegations of actual abuse, Rossi said.
The boy’s mother visited the school and had him removed from the gym class at the time, according to newspaper reports.
In 2012 the boy wrote a letter to his older brother, explaining how he had been assaulted by LoMaglio, but apparently never meant to deliver it. He hid the letter in his bedroom, where a younger brother found it and turned it over to their parents, according to Rossi.
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LoMaglio maintained his innocence throughout the trial, then acknowledged his guilt to a counselor during the sentencing phase, Rossi said. His attorney claimed he was no longer a threat to the community and tried to arrange a sentence of probation, but the judge decided to send him to prison.
The young victim, now 15, helped secure the conviction by having the courage to testify in open court against his abuser.
“I’m exceptionally proud of the victim in this case,” Rossi told the local newpaper following the conviction. “He displayed a tremendous amount of courage by coming forward and disclosing the horrible things that happened to him, and because of that courage, the abuser will face justice.”
But building a case against LoMaglio was not easy, because a significant number of teachers and other school employees who had worked with the gym teacher over the years refused to cooperate with police and prosecutors during the investigation, Rossi said.
“I would say that many teachers and administrators at several schools where this guy had taught wouldn’t talk to us at all,” Rossi said. “We ran into cold shoulders all the way around. They would say things like ‘nothing happened here’ and ‘I don’t know anything, I don’t want to talk about anything.
“One person even told a police investigator ‘don’t call me again.’ Some were even rude.”
Rossi stressed that he has no reason to believe that anyone on the school staff had direct knowledge of the crimes being committed. But he also said the investigation was more difficult than it had to be because of the lack of cooperation from some school employees.
“They could have talked to us about practices and protocals,” Rossi said. “These were people who could have helped us understand what the normal practices were in the school when this was going on. That would have helped us understand how this teacher had access to this kid. There were plenty of people who wouldn’t even tell us those neutral things.
“It was problematic for us. No one was volunteering to help. There were people who complied – they were cooperative because it was a police investigation – but nobody was excited to participate. There were teachers who simply refused to speak to us.”
Rossi said he was also troubled by the 22 letters the court received from various teachers, expressing support for LoMaglio. He said he is not authorized to turn over the letters to the public or divulge the names of the teachers who wrote them.
Some of the letters were written on school district letterhead.
“I would say the general tone (of the letters) is that he was well known by many teachers, they considered him an excellent educator and role model for children,” Rossi said. “Some of them said they were disappointed with the verdict. A lot of them seemed to know this kid, but none of them mentioned him at all (in the letters). They expressed zero compassion for the student, but full-fledged support for the man who hurt this student.
“These are people entrusted to work with children and they show no compassion for this kid.”
In a published article, Rossi was even more critical of the teachers.
“They would say this never could have happened,” Rossi said. “This is why children don’t disclose sexual abuse, because they believe the people who can help them won’t believe them. I found it reprehensible that teachers would behave this way.
“To have so many teachers come out in favor of a man who admitted he did this, it was terrible to see. Who can a kid go to?”
The lack of cooperation from school personnel, along with the support letters for LoMaglio, did not impress Erica Bryant, a local columnist for the Democrat and Chronicle.
“Astonishingly the judge who sentenced (LoMaglio) received letters from district employees saying that LoMaglio was a good role model for children,” Bryant wrote. “Some wrote that they would trust him with their own kids. Not one of the letters included a mention of the victim.
“From an average person, a refusal to answer questions in a child sex abuse investigation would be awful. Writing a letter saying that a convicted sex offender was a ‘good role model’ for kids would be bizarre. From numerous school district employees these actions are downright scary.”
A Rochester school district spokesman said there may be little anyone can do about the teachers, because they are free to express their opinions about the case, and cannot be compelled to participate in a criminal investigation, according to Bryant.
That’s not good enough for Karen Bryant, a district resident who has young relatives attending Rochester schools.
“Teachers are mandatory reporters of abuse,” Bryant wrote to EAGnews. “What good is mandating teachers to report abuse when they aren’t required to cooperate with the investigation that would naturally follow the report?”
Bryant says the community has a right to know the identity of the teachers who wrote the letters.
“We have a right to know who these people are and why they felt compelled to support a child molester and refused to cooperate with the investigation,” Bryant said. “We have a right to know if it’s their stance that they will continue to support individuals who rape our children and say nothing.”