St. Mary's Academy defends handling of 2011 teacher-student sex rumors, but vows policy review.

COURTESY PHOTO: ARIANA GARAY - Ariana Garay (left) and Francesca Cronan (right) pose with others during a 2011 trip to Italy. A classmate says she witnessed them together and that story catalyzed the state investigation that resulted in Cronan's teaching license being revoked. Rumors of a potential sexual relationship between St. Mary's Academy teacher Francesca Cronan and one of her students first surfaced at the private high school in 2011, records show. They resurfaced in 2013 and again the following year. But it wasn't until 2016 that police and the state agency regulating teachers were alerted.

Oregon's mandatory reporting law requires certain professions, including private school teachers and administrators, to report cases of suspected sex abuse of a minor to either local police or the state Department of Human Services.

The alleged sexual relationship between Cronan and student Ariana Garay — which Cronan repeatedly has denied — and how the school responded, shows the gray area in the law and how districts apply it.

See the Portland Tribune's main story, also published today: 'Me Too' claims surface against ex-St. Mary's teacher

The state requires "mandatory reporters" to report unlawful sex abuse of a minor when "reasonable cause" exists. The courts have defined reasonable cause as reasonable suspicion, which essentially means something is more likely than not to be true.

It's a subjective standard that relies on the employee's judgment. How school districts interpret the law, and how they train employees, varies around the state.

Records from the 2016 investigation by the state's Teacher Standards and Practices Commission show that rumors of a sexual relationship between Garay and Cronan began circulating at St. Mary's in 2011. At the time, Nicole Foran, who became principal of St. Mary's last year, was a fellow English teacher with Cronan. Foran told the investigator that she witnessed "clearly an inappropriate" personal relationship between Cronan and Garay, but had not thought it was sexual.

Garay denied sexual relations

In 2013, a St. Mary's alumna reported to school administrators rumors of an inappropriate relationship between Cronan and Garay, but had no first-hand knowledge. The then-principal, Kelli Clark, investigated, and both Cronan and Garay denied having sex.

In 2014, Foran's daughter, a St. Mary's graduate who attended the University of Oregon with Garay, told Foran that Garay had been telling people in Eugene of an inappropriate relationship with Cronan. That's according to an account the administrator gave the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, or TSPC, during the 2016 investigation.

In response, "Foran told her daughter that if she hears that kind of gossip to 'shut it down,' " according to TSPC documents. "Foran felt like (Garay) was spreading rumors and exaggerating and could end up getting a colleague, Cronan, into trouble," according to the investigator's report.

The investigator added that "Foran did not bring the information she heard from her daughter to the principal's attention."

The TSPC report suggests that Foran's daughter felt Garay's comments to classmates about her relationship with Cronan may have alleged more than just an inappropriately close teacher-student friendship. But the daughter, a fan of Cronan's, expressed skepticism to the investigator that the relationship was sexual, saying that Garay may have been trying to seem "cooler."

Asked about the episode, St. Mary's said in an email statement to the Tribune last week, "In 2014, Ms. Foran did not, nor did her daughter, believe that there was a physical relationship between the former student and former teacher, and did not believe that her daughter's statement implied a physical relationship."

Teacher cites 'boundary issues'

According to the state report, Nicole Foran also told the investigator that the topic of the relationship with Garay came up one night — the TSPC report does not say what year — when she, Cronan and another individual had gone out socially.

Cronan, according to Foran's account, began to cry, and Foran apologized, saying she'd assumed the rumors weren't true.

Cronan replied that there were "boundary issues" and it was a time when she was "questioning." (The report elsewhere uses this language to refer to Cronan allegedly questioning her heterosexuality.) According to the TSPC report, Foran did not ask Cronan if the relationship had become sexual.

In a statement dated Wednesday, March 28, St. Mary's provided a different version of events, saying that there was no need for Foran to ask follow-up questions of Cronan, because Cronan denied wrongdoing.

New revelation from Italy trip

In 2016, a former student approached Foran, by then an assistant principal, saying that she knew the administrator was friends with Cronan, but wanted her to know that she believed the teacher had sex with Garay. The former student said she went to Cronan's hotel room one morning during a 2011 school trip to Italy and saw Garay, wearing her shirt on backward, come out of a closet.

Foran and St. Mary's alerted Child Protective Services of the state Department of Human Services, which in August of that year alerted the Portland police and the TSPC.

In the course of the TSPC investigation, Garay eventually came forward and said that in fact the two did have sex and previously had lied about it. That investigator alerted the Portland Police Bureau to the new development.

Garay decided not to pursue criminal charges, but did cooperate with the TSPC investigation, which resulted in the revocation of Cronan's teaching license on Jan. 19, 2018.

Garay says she doesn't blame St. Mary's administrators for what happened, since at the time she denied the rumors, to protect Cronan.

Questions about when to report concerns

But should the rumors, and what Foran was told by her daughter and Cronan, have been shared with authorities earlier?

St. Mary's defends how it and Foran handled the rumors in 2011, 2013 and 2014, saying Foran reported the situation as soon as she had a witness to potential impropriety.

The school noted that as soon as it learned TSPC intended to bring formal misconduct charges against Cronan, in January 2017, the school put her on paid leave until she resigned June 15 of that year.

Although the TSPC concluded the matter in January of this year, St. Mary's did not request the agency's investigation report until March 22, after the Tribune shared aspects of it with the school. Based on the document, the school said in a statement, that, "in light of the egregious severity of this case," it vowed to be "as transparent as possible and to use this situation to evaluate our policies, procedures and practices in order to do everything we can to prevent this from happening again."

The school added: "We have not had any allegations reported to the school in recent years other than this situation."

St. Mary's says it trains teachers to comply with the mandatory reporting law and its "reasonable cause" standard, but did not share details of that training.

Portland Public Schools declined to comment, but shared its training, which calls for staff to report if they have "good reason" to believe child abuse might be happening.

Salem-Keizer School District's training is more specific, urging staff to report even third-hand allegations of sex abuse to authorities.

Asked hypothetically whether an employee should report that they'd heard a former student is claiming to have had a sexual relationship with a current teacher, Salem-Keizer spokeswoman Lillian Govur responded, "Yes. ... We always tell our staff to err on the (side of) caution. So if there is any sort of gray area, our direction to staff is to do the report."

The Marion County District Attorney's office has been a vocal proponent of reporting potential child abuse and sex abuse. "We ask that professionals use their good common sense and their reason," said a senior prosecutor there, Paige Clarkson. Fear of repeating false accusations can contribute to a "willful blindness" that hinders reporting, Clarkson said.

"That's kind of the point of the mandatory reporting statute," she said.

"It's supposed to give you an incentive to report in order to protect children. We're trying to prioritize the safety of children over the fear of being wrong."

Nick Budnick
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