(MCT) — CHICAGO — In a grand ceremony in front of the future first lady, veteran Chicago teacher Harold “Jerry” Mash was lauded for tirelessly working to help his students — a stark contrast to how he was labeled in an Ohio courtroom three decades earlier.
On that drizzly day back in 1976, Mash was found guilty of one of the cardinal sins of the classroom: abuse of a child. He lost his job. He said he was leaving teaching.
But by 2005, he had reinvented himself two states and 200 miles away. He was a guest of honor at that Chicago reception held under the skylights in a special atrium atop the Harold Washington Library. Michelle Obama gave the keynote speech. Mash was among six teachers given a $5,000 award.
On Thursday, Mash’s past caught up to him. The popular teacher was named in a civil lawsuit accusing him of molesting multiple Ohio boys, including the one he was found guilty of abusing.
Mash remains a paid district employee. But upon learning of the allegations and past criminal case from the Chicago Tribune, the district said it removed Mash from contact with children on Thursday and began its own investigation. State teaching certification officials also have begun an investigation.
A Tribune investigation of Mash’s past raises questions about how a teacher with such a conviction in one state could end up in an Illinois classroom and it highlights how a popular teacher could carry a dark past — something that experts say is not unusual among teachers found to have abused kids.
Records show Mash, 68, has spent 22 years teaching almost exclusively in Chicago schools, much of it as an English teacher, before becoming the attendance dean at Foreman High School in Lake View. There is no record he has faced criminal or civil allegations in Cook County except related to traffic, unpaid bills and three bankruptcies tied to heavy student loan debt.
In a brief interview with a Tribune reporter Tuesday at Foreman, Mash denied abusing students and said he’d never faced a criminal charge related to such an accusation. After he was shown the sentencing document in the 1976 case — for the crime of abuse of a child — he ended the interview and told a reporter to speak with his attorney.
His attorney, Jim Saltouros, on Thursday said Mash thought that even though a judge found him guilty, there would be no formal conviction if he followed through with requirements for therapy, which he did. Saltouros was unable to say what Mash specifically remembers of the case, other than to issue a blanket denial that Mash did anything wrong then, before or since.
In the lawsuit filed Thursday in Ohio, the victim in that 1976 case and another man, Ronald Tremp, both allege that Mash sexually abused them when they were in their teens. Tremp alleged Mash groomed him for sexual abuse when he was 14 and then molested him three times in 1978. The victim in the 1976 case alleged Mash groomed and then molested him for a year, when he was 14 and 15.
Their lawsuit said Mash for decades sought out roles in which he had authority over children, including as a coach and youth volunteer.
“All of these roles were intended by Defendant (Mash) to provide him with access to children he could sexually abuse and exploit,” the lawsuit alleged.
The Tribune is not publishing the name of the victim in the 1976 case, per his request. The newspaper typically grants victims of alleged sexual abuse the right to not be publicly named. He goes by the name John Doe in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit seeks more than $25,000. Saltouros questioned why they would make such allegations so many years later. Both men told the Tribune they filed not for money, but decided to come forward to publicly warn of a man they consider dangerous.
By the time Mash started his new life in Illinois, authorities had begun to abandon the once popular notion of molesters as mostly strangers in overcoats who lured children from playgrounds with candy. Experts had begun to caution that molesters could be found among a child’s family and acquaintances, including teachers.
In response to the movement — and five years before Mash set foot in an Illinois classroom — the state had begun background checks, but Mash’s Ohio case was not found.
Experts and the district say there are several reasons why. Chicago Public Schools initially only checked statewide databases, not the FBI’s national one. Even if they had checked the national database, most states didn’t begin sending information on all misdemeanor convictions until the 1990s. Before then, much of the cataloging was done by hand, with little manpower to process the files.
And the FBI data also could exclude cases that didn’t lead to charges. In Tremp’s case, his mother, Adela Tremp, told the Tribune she filed a report with Toledo police in 1978 after her son told her Mash had begun molesting him after hiring the boy to rake leaves. But Tremp said she balked at filing charges for fear her son would be ostracized and ridiculed by his peers.
Toledo police said they could find no record of such a report, but told the Tremps such records were commonly destroyed after 15 years.
Mash had run-ins in another state with police, too, before being hired in Illinois. Records in Iowa show he was twice arrested for assault and once for telephone harassment. He was convicted of one of the assaults — a misdemeanor. None of those allegations involved juveniles.
Illinois didn’t require him to mention any of it when he applied to be a teacher — even the 1976 criminal case. Records show Mash was only asked if he had been convicted of a felony, or if any state was considering or had suspended or revoked his certificate there. He checked no to all, and in 1990 was given a certificate to be a substitute teacher, and two years later, a full-time teacher, and four years after that, a school administrator.
State records show he taught mostly in Chicago Public Schools with a brief stint as an administrator in Maywood’s District 89 from 1999 to 2001. He has been at Foreman since 2006.
He ventured into the running public debate on school reform, being quoted over the years in articles in the Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and The New York Times.
But his big day came in 2005, when he was one of six winners out of 776 teachers nominated by students for the Suave Performance Plus award program. Mash was credited with working long hours after school and on weekends tutoring students preparing for college.