A Horrible Mistake . . .An Innocent Man Accused Of Rape

``They've made just a horrible mistake,'' said a telephone caller late last October.

She knew the schoolteacher who'd been accused of raping a student, she told me. She and everyone else who knew him were convinced he could never have done such a thing.

At the time of her call, a storm of public indignation over sex crimes and sex offenders was raging across the state. I'd just written an account (Issues, Oct. 29) of the cruel rape of a woman who, coincidentally, was a King County deputy prosecuting attorney.

For weeks I'd attended public hearings held by the Governor's Task Force on Community Protection, where I listened to tales of awful sex crimes, many against children. At that time I wrote that the need for some crackdown on sex offenders would be ``the white-hot issue'' facing the 1990 Legislature.

But here was one case - State vs. Strom - in which, my caller told me, the legal system had gone haywire. An innocent man had been caught up in something crazy and unjust.

I'd read brief newspaper accounts of the case. Each had its grabber headline, something like: ``Teacher charged with raping young student.''

The teacher, Daniel Mark Strom, had been suspended by the Lake Washington School District. In mid-November, when I attended Strom's arraignment in the King County Courthouse, I sensed something was wrong.

There was the defendant, a clean-cut, 29-year-old man, and his wife, Colleen, both looking slightly scared and bewildered. Grouped around them were their mothers and fathers - also looking bewildered, but delivering loving support. (These were Christian families, I'd come to learn, that prayed together.)

To my surprise, the school girl - the ``rape victim'' - also showed up in the crowd in the courtroom. That's highly unusual at such a routine, pre-trial court proceeding.

We'll call her ``Lisa'' - not her real name. She lounged against a rear wall of the courtroom - a slender 13-year-old, wearing a leather jacket, T-shirt and jeans. As she watched with obvious interest, she chewed gum.

My gut feeling at the time: Lisa didn't appear to be a youngster who'd suffered the terrible trauma of rape. In no way did her demeanor resemble that of the victims I'd dealt with or seen at the public hearings. She looked like a spectator at a baseball game.

At one point in the proceedings there was confusion over the girl's name. The name in the court document wasn't the name Lisa used in school. An attorney mentioned she was in the courtroom and might explain it.

``She's in the courtroom?'' exclaimed the judge in surprise.

Lisa walked forward and explained that the family name in the court papers was her birth name; her present name comes from a stepfather.

Strom pleaded not guilty that day, was released on his personal recognizance, and left to face trial in February. But he and those around him were sentenced to a living nightmare through the ensuing weeks.

Dan Strom had grown up as the second of four sons of Gordon and Margaret Strom. Between the ages of 4 and 14 he lived in West Germany, where his father, a pastor, worked as a Christian missionary. ``All the brothers are committed Christians,'' says the father.

Later the family settled in Seattle. Dan Strom graduated from Roosevelt High School and the University of Washington, where one of his majors was German. He married and entered teaching. After teaching for a year at a church-affiliated high school, he became a junior-high-school teacher in the Lake Washington District.

Last year Strom was teaching English and German at Rose Hill Junior High. (He also was a well-regarded soccer coach.) One day in late September, during a teacher workshop day, Strom was summoned to the office of a vice principal, where he was confronted by two detectives of the Redmond Police Department.

He was told that a student - Lisa - had accused him of raping her on two occasions, once in March, when she was 12, and a few weeks later, just after her 13th birthday.

``I was completely stunned,'' Strom recalls. ``I felt utter disbelief that this could happen to me. . . . Maybe it's the thing you think could happen to somebody else, but it can't happen to you.''

He felt ``a sense of panic,'' he adds. He'd never been in trouble with the law before - ``or any kind of trouble.'' Even though he was read his rights to remain silent, Strom gave the officers a statement that the allegations were untrue.

Then he drove home to North Seattle in his yellow, 1983 Subaru to break the news of what had happened to his wife, parents and brothers. They, too, were dumbfounded. ``My wife broke down and cried,'' he says.

Later came the hurtful media reports, in newspapers and on radio, that replayed the charges. The girl, the media said, had been summoned to his classroom after school to discuss her lagging grades in German class. Strom told her he understood she had ``a crush'' on him, the report went on. Then he allegedly kissed her, pulled her to the floor and had forced sexual intercourse with her.

The following month, she said, there'd been a second assault in the classroom after school.

(Lisa said she'd told a girlfriend about the events, but swore the friend to secrecy. Later Lisa had told the story to a school counselor, who notified the police.)

Further, the news reports went on (quoting the prosecutor's charges), Strom came by Lisa's residence last summer, driving a red Corvette that ``he said he borrowed from a friend.'' They went for a drive, said the girl, but there was no sexual assault that time.

Later, the charge continued, Lisa said she tried to break off the relationship.

Strom had initially been suspended with pay by the school district. Then in mid-October he was fired outright from his teaching job.

For everyone in the family, says Gordon Strom, the passing weeks were ``almost like a situation of death and dying. There's been a death - the death of a career, in a sense.

``Dan's been a good husband. He's had an impeccable career as a teacher, a sought-after coach. He's been a Christian camp youth leader. All of these things are just so foreign to the allegations.''

And, noting the emotional impact on Dan's wife, says the father, ``It's almost as though Colleen had been raped by what's happened.'' With Dan unemployed, Colleen has been providing the sole family income from her job in a dental office.

Strom's legal defense had a faltering start, but that turned around when Seattle attorney Jan Olson began representing him. Olson had an investigator check some of the facts of the case.

Recently Olson notified the prosecutor's office that some flaws had been found in the girl's version of what happened. Olson praises the reaction: ``The prosecutor's office was very cooperative.'' In fact, a full reinvestigation was undertaken by the prosecutor.

Early last week, the prayers of the Strom family and friends were answered: In a brief proceeding, the case against Strom was dropped.

Deputy Prosecutor Rebecca Roe explains that Lisa's red Corvette story apparently was not true. (Strom always had said he'd never driven a Corvette and none of his friends owned one.)

In fact, the girl had told a school counselor that she had fabricated that whole red-car incident. For the credibility of the witness and the state's case, says Roe, ``that was a fatal blow.''

If that part of her story was a fabrication, what else was a fabrication?

There were other flaws. It's implausible that the alleged rapes would have occurred as Lisa described them - in an unlocked classroom, after school, ``in a corner of the room not visible to others.''

And even before the allegations, Lisa acknowledged that she had ``a crush'' on Strom and another male teacher.

Even after the charges against him were dropped, Strom still seemed stunned, unable, really, to feel elated. It was, he sighed, ``like having a huge, heavy packsack removed from your back.''

To those around her, Lisa had appeared to be a reasonably stable, credible youngster. Nothing quirky. What might have caused her to fabricate such a tale? Could intense fantasy, perhaps rising out of fiction, TV or movie images, overtake and blur reality, then become perceived reality itself?

Understandably, Lisa wasn't available for an interview for this article. Gordon Strom says members of the Strom family ``are concerned for her. She's a troubled girl, who's searching for identity and for love and for a meaningful life. We have no animosity.''

Even though the charges have been dropped, a spokesperson for the Lake Washington School District said late last week that nothing is changed in Strom's employment status.

He remains fired. A routine administrative process - his request for reinstatement - goes forward. Both Strom and his lawyer are guarded in what they say about the case. Obviously, the option of a civil lawsuit is available. Some conspicuous, troubling messages arise from the incident. Once again, teachers are reminded of the potential peril in their contacts with students - of, for example, giving a loving, encouraging hug to a kid who seems to need it. Or even to give a ride home to a kid who needs one.

Doug Lundvall, president of the Lake Washington Education Association (which filed a grievance against the school district in the Strom firing), says that the LWEA and the school district have an ongoing program to instruct teachers on how to avoid ``situations that make them vulnerable to accusations.''

If a student needs a ride home following an after-school activity, for example, the teacher is instructed to call an administrator, a police officer or a taxi.

So a needed distancing is wedged between student and teacher in their personal relationships.

``It's unfortunate,'' says Lundvall, ``but we live in the real world. I think it's more difficult to be a teacher nowadays. The workload is heavier. You're dealing with single-parent, at-risk kids.''

Many of those kids need special, nurturing relationships that the teacher could offer. But the teacher must beware.

And, Lundvall adds, there seems to be a willingness on the part of the public to accept a report of improper conduct by a teacher, even though it's untrue.

Of course, Strom is stigmatized by what happened. No need to dwell on his damaged dream of a long career in teaching and coaching.

Today's hurried society, with its need to grab its news and information in superficial bites - often mere allegations - is different from an earlier American society that held firm beliefs about the accused being innocent until proven guilty.

The same day the case against Strom was dropped, state legislators in Olympia began consideration of a flood of proposed new laws dealing with sex crimes. Many are solid proposals from the governor's community-protection task force.

Others, sailing to catch the hot political winds of an election year, dismiss such constitutional notions as presumption of innocence.

Last week I had lunch - a get-acquainted, interview session - with Strom and his lawyer at a crowded, noisy, downtown restaurant. My fork was poised for a first bite of salad when I noticed the two men were poised for a prayer of blessing.

I rested my fork and joined them. It was a prayer of thanks for what had ultimately happened - and a prayer for the future well-being of the troubled schoolgirl called Lisa.