Former Stamford student speaks out about sex abuse
STAMFORD — What a former Rogers Elementary School student remembers most clearly is the chair — a big, red leather lean-back with wooden arms.
It was the 1970s at Rogers Elementary School where Robert Martinez was a gym teacher. According to a recently settled lawsuit, Martinez sexually abused at least five boys during this time, luring them into his office and touching them during gym class, in the halls and in the bus line.
One of Martinez’s victims said he used the lean-back chair in his office as a method of intimidation, implying he’d pull the arms off the chair and use them if the boy protested the assault.
“I said to myself this doesn’t seem good,” said the victim, now a 49-year-old man living in Texas whose identity the Stamford Advocate has agreed to protect. “He told me he loved me and I just can’t remember the things that happened after that. There’s a detachment that happens. I’ve tried to remember and I don’t know if I necessarily want to.”
It took more than two decades before he sought help.
About 10 years after first opening up about the assaults, the victim placed an advertisement in the Stamford Advocate and on Facebook seeking other abuse survivors from the school. The result was a lawsuit filed in 2013 against the Stamford Board of Education, Martinez and former Rogers Principal Edward Matthews. The lawsuit accused the school board of failing to enforce a policy prohibiting teachers from being alone with students and not acting appropriately considering Martinez’s behavior.
Martinez worked at Rogers from 1972 to 1982 before being transferred to Hart Elementary School where he stayed until 1991. He then taught at Toquam Elementary School until 2005.
The case was settled in June for $3.25 million paid to five men who claim Martinez assaulted them.
“It occurred to me there were a lot of people who dealt with the same type of things and they don’t have the ability to recognize that,” the Texas man said. “Coming forward is a way of letting other people know this type of thing happens. You’re not alone.”
The victim said Martinez began abusing him soon after he enrolled at Rogers in the fourth grade. He remembers the gym teacher as a “touchy, feely” muscular man with a proclivity toward bullying. During dodgeball in gym class, the victim said Martinez required students who were out of the game to sit on the floor. The victim said Martinez often sat in a chair against the wall with one of the boys sitting between his legs as he caressed the child’s chest.
The victim said Martinez looked for excuses to get children alone. The victim recalls an incident when he got in trouble for putting a tack on a girl’s chair. He said Martinez insisted he come to his office even though another teacher wanted to send him to the principal.
While the man said he’s unsure if other teachers were aware of what was happening, the lawsuit claimed students called Martinez “Chester the Molester” and “Big Al, the Kiddie’s Pal.”
Cindy Robinson, an attorney with Tremont, Sheldon, Robinson and Mahoney, the Bridgeport firm that represented the men in the case, said schools were aware this was an issue as legislation was passed in 1967 making teachers mandatory reporters of child abuse.
“Almost every entity, now they do have written policies,” said Robinson, whose law firm also represented plaintiffs in abuse claims against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport. “But a written policy is only as good as its enforcement. I still think people look the other way.”
The victim said the abuse continued into the fifth grade, causing anal and lower back injuries that he still suffers from today.
Despite the physical symptoms, the victim didn’t tell anyone about the abuse. One day he said his mother noticed blood in his underwear and asked if he was all right.
“Yes, everything is OK,” he recalled telling her.
The man said he now realizes his mother was unaware of the abuse, but feels it affected their relationship. After his father died when he was in sixth grade, he said he thought his mother knew about the abuse and didn’t do anything to stop it. He said he resented her for it.
“I don’t know why,” he said. “It’s just fear. That’s the only thing I could really get to is fear. I’m sure if my mother and father knew about it, they would’ve done something about it. They were very loving people.”
The man said it wasn’t until 2000 when he spoke to a psychologist about the lingering side effects of the abuse, which included questioning his sexuality and lack of trust in himself and others, particularly authority figures.
“What I’ve seen with child sex abuse among many is it does cause both men and women to question their sexual identity,” Robinson said. “This is not a consensual act. It routinely calls into question their sexual identity.”
In 1990, the Stamford Board of Education adopted a personnel policy on child abuse and neglect, which has since been updated four times. The most recent update was in September 2016. In a statement, the school district said it adheres to state and federal statues during its hiring process.
“While we can’t speak to what has changed since the incidents in question, nor as to what was done or not done, what we do know is that today’s generation of educators, law enforcement officials and social welfare agencies has a heightened awareness of issues of harassment and abuse,” the district said in the statement. “The overwhelming caseload at DCF is a testament to this phenomenon.”
The Texas man says his life has improved since the abuse. He’s married, describing his wife as the “love of his life,” and has a 9-year-old son and 14-year-old stepdaughter.
“I’m lucky,” he said. “I’ve been working on this problem for many, many years. Child sexual abuse is much more latent than we have any idea...It is a pervasive and significant underflow that’s happened to many, many more people than we know. When I open up about this stuff to other people and friends, they inevitably said, ‘I had something like that happen to me, too.’ People who children trust exploit them sexually. I think we live in a society where it allows people to speak out against these types of things without retribution.”
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