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Teacher still marred by unproven sexual misconduct charges

Woman accused of sex with students five years ago got license back but
not her job 

By Eric Dexheimer, The American Statesman, August 19, 2007

Joelle Ogletree was heading to a Friday night football game in Glen
Rose, her picturesque hometown an hour's drive west of Fort Worth, when
she first heard the rumors that she was having sex with some students in
her French class. The then-24-year-old teacher laughed them off.

But the stories, turbocharged by relentless chat on a community Internet
bulletin board, were unstoppable. 

"It was like a wildfire," recalls Ryan Anzaldua, a high school sophomore at the time. "If you went somewhere in Glen Rose, you could hear it talked about."

The next Tuesday, the school placed Ogletree on leave. Students were
summoned from her classes to tell their stories behind closed doors. By
that Thursday morning, without ever being interviewed, Ogletree was fired.

Two months later, the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory
Services determined that it had "reason to believe" Ogletree had
improper relationships with two boys.

Eventually, she would be charged with sexual assault and indecency with
a child. The Texas Education Agency would fight to revoke her teaching
license; Glen Rose school administrators banned her from their classrooms.

The tight-knit community of 2,000 was divided. Ogletree grew up in Glen
Rose, returning to teach and raise her own family there. Many refused to
believe that she was capable of molesting the town's sons.

But plenty did. Families seated next to her at the Flashback restaurant
asked to be moved. 

"You're walking into the post office, someone starts to say, 'Hi,' but then realizes who you are and stops," Ogletree says. 

The vast social and government apparatus that protects children from
predators had quickly mobilized to isolate and punish Ogletree.

But what if she didn't do it? 

'No one wins'

Lawyers who defend teachers say that cases such as Ogletree's are of
growing concern as state regulators step up their efforts to weed
predatory teachers out of the classroom.

The number of Texas teachers accused of sexual misconduct has soared,
from about 110 in 1997 to more than 400 in 2001, before leveling off
around 250 in recent years.

Officials say the reason is more aggressive reporting of incidents and
better information. Most charges are quickly proved or disproved. Many
teachers voluntarily surrender their licenses when confronted with
wrongdoing. Others accept lesser penalties for lesser offenses.

But contested sexual misconduct cases are heard regularly by
administrative law judges who recommend whether a teacher should be
banned from his or her profession. The level of proof is lower than the
"beyond a reasonable doubt" standard necessary for a criminal conviction.

In recent years, Texas regulators and lawmakers have assumed a tough
stance against errant teachers. 

"We're much more aggressive about taking a case to trial," says Christopher Jones, head of the Texas Education Agency's investigations and discipline office.

A 2003 law made it a crime for any secondary school teacher to have a
sexual relationship with a student, regardless of age.

Four years ago, El Paso band teacher Jimmy Gonzalez, then 26, started a
relationship with a 19-year-old student who wasn't in band. They later
married and had a child. The state revoked his license, even though an
administrative judge concluded in a November 2006 opinion that the two
were "consenting adults."

Defense attorneys say the aggressive approach probably means more false

"It's easier for a student today to make allegations with ill motives," says Daniel Ortiz, an Arlington attorney specializing in
defending teachers accused of sex crimes. 

Anecdotally, "I'd say a quarter to third are false," adds Thomas Martin, a Houston attorney who also represents accused sex offenders.

For teachers, being falsely accused is a nightmare. Unions can cap legal
coverage at a pittance of the cost of a vigorous defense. Eventually,
Ogletree would employ four attorneys and ring up well over $100,000 in
legal fees, refinancing her home twice to cover the bills.

Once he or she is identified as a predator, a teacher's reputation may
never recover, especially in small communities, where word spreads
quickly and privacy is a relative term.

Accused of sexual abuse by a former student in 1998, Patricia Glodfelty
was fired from her high school teaching job in tiny Peaster, outside
Fort Worth. She was cleared, but the school district still refused to
rehire her, maintaining that the damage to her reputation from gossip
alone rendered her ineffective.

Years later, Glodfelty settled with the district, but only after an
appeals court ruled in her favor, noting that if rumors were the
standard for guilt, 

"a teacher is just one false accusation away from losing his or her career."

Contested cases where the truth may never be fully known are
particularly brutal, says Austin's Kevin Lungwitz, a former attorney for
the Texas State Teachers Association who now holds workshops for
teachers called "Staying in the Schoolhouse and Out of the Courthouse."

"Either an innocent teacher's life is ruined, or a kid who is molested is now also being branded a liar," he says. "No one wins."

'Most wonderful place in the world'

Founded as a mill town on the Paluxy River, Glen Rose is mainly a
commuter community with a visible Christian presence. It is home to both
the Creation Evidence Museum, dedicated to disproving Darwin, and "The
Promise," a large passion play staged every summer. People are
identified as much by their congregations as by their jobs.

Everyone's path crosses at some point. The vice principal who first
investigated Ogletree is married to her former baby sitter. The school's
cop lives two doors down from her.

On Oct. 1, 2002, according to school investigation reports that are part
of Ogletree's court records, a teacher who overheard students gossiping
about Ogletree called the vice principal, who contacted the sheriff's
deputy assigned to the school. He began interviewing boys.

Chayce, then 15, was the first to speak out.

Starting the previous spring, Chayce said, Ogletree had begun dressing
"very vulgar" in class. Later, he added, she'd lured him into her empty
classroom to watch her strip. 

(Because they were minors at the time, the boys who accused Ogletree of molestation are identified in this story by first names only.)

Chayce's friend Matt was next. Ogletree had asked him to help move a
piano at her house the previous summer, he said, but when he showed up,
there was no piano, and Ogletree was alone. 

"She started coming on to me," he told an investigator. "Reluctantly, I gave in."

In the following months, the boys spilled more details of alleged sexual
encounters -- in and out of the classroom -- to investigators.

Matt said he recalled an incident at a student camp out at the
Ogletrees' house. Chayce said he remembered a time in the middle of the
school day when he and his teacher ended up on her classroom floor,
kissing and groping. He claimed four incidents in all.

In May, Sam, the son of the former mayor, said he and Ogletree had sex
at her house when he'd stopped by to drop off a paper for her husband, a
chemistry teacher at the high school.

No one from the school district or sheriff's department ever questioned
her, Ogletree says.

To her supporters -- among them, friends, colleagues, former teachers
and students -- tales of her illicit escapades were laughable. Glen Rose
was too small for a secret life, they said, and Ogletree's entire life
was Glen Rose. 

"I loved growing up here," she says. "I thought Glen Rose was the most wonderful place in the world." 

By the time she graduated, she'd already decided to become a teacher.
She earned perfect grades at nearby Tarleton State University,
graduating early to replace Glen Rose's retiring French teacher. 

"We are very fortunate to have Mrs. Ogletree," the school district's
director of personnel wrote in March 2000. "She was an outstanding student in high school. She will be a great asset to the high school."

Early evaluations praised her for going beyond class hours to help her

"Mrs. Ogletree was an awesome teacher," says Beau Young, a 2004
graduate. "She made French interesting, so you wanted to learn."

"She certainly didn't do anything inappropriate" in class, adds Megan Prast, who shared Ogletree's sophomore French class with Chayce and Matt.

Ogletree was formally indicted in the spring of 2003. She faced up to 20
years in prison. 

'Because I didn't do it'

Legal proceedings against Ogletree moved slowly; her trial was finally
set for summer 2004. At home, she taped inspirational sayings on the

"Sometimes the Lord calms the storm, sometimes He lets the storm rage and calms His child," one read.

She shopped for her trial clothes at a thrift store. Her lawyer
instructed her to cut her hair to look more mature and wear long sleeves
and a modest, but not too frumpy, skirt.

A month before the trial prosecutors offered a deal: If Ogletree pleaded
guilty only to public lewdness, she wouldn't have to go to prison or
register as a sex offender, although she'd still forfeit her teacher's

"I urged her as strongly as I ever urged anyone to take that plea
bargain," recalls Bruce Beasley, her lawyer.

"Take it," her husband, Doug, urged. "We'll sell everything; we'll move." 

She decided one afternoon as she lay on her living room couch after a
long cry. 

"I had this feeling wash over me, of pure peace," she recalls.
"I told them 'no.' Because I didn't do it."

The trial began that Aug. 16. What the jury didn't know was that Sam
already had confessed at a church camp that he'd fabricated his story of
sex with his teacher. According to a deposition, he said he'd felt
pressured by school administrators, whom he estimated had interrogated
him between 10 and 20 times. 

Matt was the first to testify against Ogletree. Under questioning,
though, his stories changed. Details about the alleged encounters were
added, forgotten or altered.

The next morning, prosecutors suddenly asked the judge to end the trial,
claiming that Ogletree's husband was intimidating Matt by glaring at him
through the courtroom door as the boy testified. The judge agreed and
declared a mistrial before Chayce could testify.

Beasley says prosecutors made the unusual request because their case was
falling apart. 

"The level of investigation I observed was comparable to what you would expect in a traffic ticket case," he says. "If anyone had stopped to investigate it even cursorily, they would have found (the charges) not to be true." 

Three months later, all charges against Ogletree were quietly dropped.
Johnston/Somervell County prosecutors did not return repeated phone
calls about the case. 

'The teacher put one over on us.' 

The dismissal of criminal charges meant little to the Texas Education
Agency, which soon informed Ogletree that it still intended to take away
her license.

At the June 2006 hearing, Matt again told his story, but this time,
former students and teachers vouched for Ogletree's character and
version of events. Several said Matt and Chayce were untrustworthy. One
boy said he helped Matt move the piano at the Ogletrees' house on the
day Matt claimed he had been alone with Ogletree. Details of the sexual
encounters Chayce had described -- positions, times, conversations --
also changed or were called into question.

Calling Chayce and Matt's allegations "implausible and even impossible,"
the judge last summer ordered Ogletree's teaching certificate to be
"granted without delay." Regulators appealed but lost again; Ogletree
was issued a new license in November.

For many in Glen Rose, however, Ogletree's legal victories suggest only
that she beat the system. School officials still won't allow her to
volunteer at her daughter's elementary school.

Ogletree's wrongful termination lawsuit against the school district is

Current and former district officials did not return numerous phone
calls from the American-Statesman. But in a taped school board meeting,
Superintendent Wayne Rotan said he still believes Ogletree is guilty.

He's not alone. 

"I believe the teacher put one over on us," says the Education Agency's Jones. "For the rest of my life, I'll be mad about it."

Sam, who graduated from college this year, declined to discuss Ogletree,
other than to confirm that he'd retracted his allegations. Matt was
voted Glen Rose's prom king and moved away. He could not be reached for
this story.

Ogletree's friends have speculated why students might make up a
destructive story about their new teacher: perhaps teenage boasts spun
out of control. In a letter of support submitted as part of Ogletree's
license hearing, one of the boys' teachers described them as "liars,
cheats and plagiarists."

But Chayce, who returned to work in the family real estate business
after attending Bible college, says he told the truth. 

"It happened," he says. "I don't know if it happened the way I said it did; it was very unclear to me. I didn't write down in my daytime planner, 'I messed around with my teacher today.' I tried to forget it."

Ogletree says that though she still hears the occasional whisper as she
travels about town, she intends to stay in Glen Rose. 

"Why would I leave?" she says. "I didn't do anything to be ashamed of."

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