After announcing plans to retire in February, Principal Ricki Harvey of Dogwood Elementary was set to end a meteoric career at the top. One year ago she had been given the state’s highest honor for principals, the National Distinguished Principal of the Year award.
Now, her 31 years of service to Fairfax County Public Schools has been sullied by serious accusations.
Last week, Harvey, 55, was charged with two misdemeanors for failing to report suspected child abuse by Kenneth Bayer, the 88-year-old volunteer arrested last month for allegedly molesting a 13-year-old girl.
Harvey was served April 6 with two summonses at Dogwood, which was one of three elementary schools where Bayer worked as a volunteer until being arrested last month. Bayer, however, did not meet his 13-year old accuser through his volunteer work at the elementary schools, and the alleged incident took place in the victim’s house.
Officer Richard Henry, a Fairfax County police spokesman, said that police received complaints from parents of Dogwood students and teachers at Dogwood that Harvey knew “about suspected child abuse between [Bayer] and students in the school and did not report it to the authorities.”
The police began investigating Harvey after they received the complaints, which were made after Bayer was arrested on two counts of aggravated sexual assault and one count of indecent exposure on March 3. Bayer’s court hearing is scheduled for June at Fairfax Juvenile District Court.
HARVEY HAS been an educator in Fairfax County since 1974 and a principal since 1990. “My entire professional life has been dedicated to the well being of children,” said Harvey. “I’ve spent 31 years educating and protecting children in Fairfax County Public Schools.
“I would never do anything that caused harm to children. I am deeply saddened by these charges, and I believe that once all the facts are known, this will be resolved in my favor,” said Harvey.
School employees who suspect abuse or neglect of a child are required by Virginia law to report it within 72 hours to the local police or the child abuse hotline. In some states failure to report can result in criminal liability and jail time, but in Virginia the misdemeanor is punishable by a fine of up to $500.
Several parents of students at Dogwood cannot believe the charges. “This is not something [Harvey] is capable of,” said Amy Shaw, who has a third-grade daughter who attends Dogwood and another daughter who will be starting kindergarten there in the summer.
“I don’t believe for a minute that she would do something to jeopardize the children,” said Mark Johnson, president of Dogwood’s Parent Teacher Association and father of two children at Dogwood.
“I was shocked and dismayed,” said Luanne Grabski, reacting to the charges. “Mrs. Harvey would never, ever put a child in harm’s way,” said Grabski, immediate past president of Dogwood’s Parent Teacher Association and mother of a fifth-grader at Dogwood. “The charges are completely bogus, ill-founded,” she said.
SCHOOL OFFICIALS also expressed disbelief. “I was surprised because I don’t believe Ricki would do anything to put a child in harm’s way,” said School Board Member Stuart Gibson, who represents Reston.
The statement issued by Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) starts by saying, “No Fairfax County Public School principal would intentionally place a child in harm’s way.”
FCPS will be doing their own investigation said Paul Regnier, spokesman for the school system.
Meanwhile, Harvey will be finishing out the school year at Dogwood. “It is not FCPS practice to place an employee charged with a misdemeanor on administrative leave,” Regnier said.
The school system will also be looking into its child protection policies. “When a principal of this stature is charged in a situation like this, it is clear that we must renew our efforts to train and prepare our staff to be aware of potential hazards to our students,” said the statement issued by Fairfax County Public Schools.
Harvey became principal at Dogwood in 1999 under trying circumstances. The same year she arrived, the school was given an “at risk” classification. Today, just more than half of the student body is eligible for free or reduced-price meals, a measure for poverty in schools. Enrollment for English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) programs has increased 300 percent since she arrived, and now these students make up more than one-third of the school’s total student enrollment, higher than the county average of 16 percent.
IN HER SECOND YEAR as principal at Dogwood, Harvey steered the school through a difficult period when the school burned down in an overnight electrical fire and students were bused to other area schools. Harvey is recognized for helping maintain a sense of school and community during the 14 months it took to rebuild the school.
“That year was very difficult,” Johnson said. “She showed very strong leadership keeping the community together during that time.”
Within the school system, Harvey is credited with energizing the school and reversing trends of declining student achievement. “She is the embodiment of the spirit that every child can learn,” said Gibson. “I think she’s popular because she’s been successful.”
“[Dogwood has] been fully accredited by Virginia this year,” said Johnson, “and that's through her leadership and hard work.”
“She brought up test scores,” said Grabski. “She has put together tremendous programs in this school that help all children.”
Since taking over at Dogwood, Harvey has instituted multi-age classes, full-day kindergarten and the modified school calendar, which provides nearly an additional month to the school year. In 2003, Dogwood received a Project Excel silver award from FCPS for raising its Standards of Learning tests scores 20 to 40 points in every category.
While Harvey has helped the school make impressive improvements in test scores, Dogwood did not meet federally mandated achievement goals in 2004, forcing the school to offer students the option to transfer to another school. Fifteen students opted to transfer.
MANY PEOPLE WHO have followed her career complain that the charges will leave a black eye on her career even if the charges are determined to be false.
“I just hope she has the opportunity to repair the damage that has been done due to these charges,” said Gibson. “I’m very sad that she’s retiring,” he said.
“It makes me feel so sad for Mrs. Harvey because she’s so dedicated to the school.” said Shaw. “Everyone I’ve talked to has said, ‘what can we do to show our support,’” said Shaw.
“We don’t know all the facts and I think that when all the facts are out, that’s when people can form opinions,” said Jeanne Marshall, who has a son in the second grade at Dogwood.
“We’re going to rally behind her,” said Grabski.
For Johnson, it doesn’t change anything. “Come Monday morning, I will take my two kids in just like I do every day school’s in session,” he said.
Harvey, who lives in McLean, has her court hearing scheduled for June.