- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2000

Seven of the students who accused a Montgomery County, Md., teacher of sexual misconduct have been charged with making false statements to police and conspiring to do so, the county's state's attorney announced yesterday.

The students who were all sixth-graders at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown are unlikely to receive harsh sentences, however.

Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said he will seek a sentence that includes an apology to the teacher and a long term of community service perhaps with real victims of sex abuse.

"We're just interested in the court determining an appropriate sentence," said Paul Kemp, attorney for Ronald Heller, the teacher who was falsely accused. "His reputation was ruined and he was made to appear to be a sex offender."

Mr. Gansler said he does not advocate incarceration because the acts were not violent and the offenders are children. Also, Mr. Gansler said, it's important that the punishment not deter true victims of sex abuse from coming forward.

No trial date has been set.

In February, the girls told a school counselor Mr. Heller had watched them undress, touched them and grabbed a girl's buttocks.

The eighth student, a boy, was not charged because he lied only to school officials when he said he saw Mr. Heller, a physical-education teacher and coach, go into the girls' locker room at the time the accusers would have been changing clothes.

School authorities sidelined the 54-year-old Mr. Heller suspending him with pay. Put on a sort of home detention, Mr. Heller had to call administrators if he left his house or yard.

Almost a month passed before the students' stories fell apart.

Although the girls had coordinated their fabricated accusations, police scrutiny eventually led them to recant.

When police questioned the boy, he became the first of the students who are not being identified because they are juveniles to admit the accusations were false.

The girls had also claimed they had complained to two teachers about Mr. Heller. Questioned about the incident, the teachers said the girls had complained because Mr. Heller had yelled at them.

The students were suspended March 13 and Mr. Heller returned to school, buoyed by the support of parents and colleagues, the next day.

But he made it clear he would not stay at Robert Clemente Middle School if his accusers were allowed to return. They have admitted they lied about the incident.

All eight students are now enrolled at other schools or are getting home instruction by county school employees, said Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Brian Porter.

Mr. Gansler said he believes the students most of whom are 12-year-olds have gained a heightened understanding of the gravity of their lies from their school suspensions and transfers and "hopefully, [are] getting punishment at home."

"This is a case where everything worked except the children. The children were cowardly," Mr. Gansler said.

Mr. Kemp said he heard some of the children have cried in front of authorities since they were arrested, but he said he's not sure if they are sorry for the suffering they caused or just sorry they got caught.

And he said he doesn't believe his client would consent to having the children return to Roberto Clemente for seventh and eighth grades.

"I think he'd feel uncomfortable with that. He doesn't want to think about it," Mr. Kemp said.

Mr. Heller has no plans to sue the students' families for damages, Mr. Kemp said.

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