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    Principal's trips with girls raise concerns

    Some question a private school principal's overnight visits to Disney with his students. Police investigations have found no crime.

    By KELLEY BENHAM and CURTIS KRUEGER
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 24, 2003

    photo
    [Times photo: Scott Keeler]
    Community Christian School was struggling with debt when Harold Richard Baker arrived from North Florida Christian School in Tallahassee 12 years ago. He built the enrollment from 160 to 245. The school, which serves age 3 to grade 12, rents space from Westside Church of the Nazarene and has an annual budget approaching $1-million. Full-time tuition is $3,350- $5,050.

    photoA police investigation of Community Christian School principal Dick Baker is inactive, but not closed.

    LARGO - The principal's invitation to some of the girls at his school read like this:

    TO: THE PARENTS OF THE ROYAL PRINCESSES

    FROM: THE KING OF CCS

    I humbly request your permission for the princesses listed above to join me in a visit to a land where dreams come true . . .

    May I have the honor of your daughter's presence for this princess reunion?

    P.S. Glass slippers may be brought but no blue blood snootiness.

    Some girls brought luggage to Community Christian School on May 16 for another trip to Disney with "the king" - principal Dick Baker.

    But they never went. They talked to police instead.

    One by one, Cinderella, Ariel, Belle and the others sat down in the school library with investigators. They answered questions about their principal - the one who gave them the nicknames, who treated them like family, who took a select group of girls on dozens and dozens of overnight trips.

    The middle school-age girls told police they had been to Disney with Baker 20 times, 30 or 40 times. One girl said she had been 81 times. Sometimes they shared a room with him, but not a bed. Sometimes Baker, 52, was the only adult on the trip. He slept in Disney pajamas, one girl said.

    There was no need to bring a swimsuit - Baker had a bag full of Disney suits that the girls could choose from so everyone would match. Detectives learned that he gave them matching dresses and took pictures of them wearing Tinkerbell and other costumes, complete with wands and crowns.

    The girls talked with investigators about swimsuit changing contests. About hugs, massages and lots of tickling. About the difference between "good touches" and "bad touches."

    The girls said Baker never touched them in a bad way. A ninth-grader cried when she talked about how much he meant to her.

    Parents picking up their kids at the end of that school day saw extra cars and men with badges. They saw Baker surrounded by a small cluster of people laying hands on him and praying. "We were all like, "What is going on?' " said Peggy Staples, mother of a third-grader.

    The school has not officially notified parents that Baker has been investigated.

    Largo police found nothing criminal about the trips to Disney World or any of Baker's interactions with students at the school at 13650 Walsingham Road. Detectives have classified the case as "inactive" but not closed.

    "Although several areas of concern were raised," the 24-page police report said, ". . . no allegations were substantiated which raised the reported concerns to the level of criminal activity."

    A separate investigation by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Child Protection Division is ongoing, Detective Tim Goodman said.

    Reporters tried to speak to Baker by phone several times and once at the school. He declined to be interviewed.

    But Baker told the police, "My hands don't go where they don't belong," adding that he would not touch a student on the shoulders or knees. "I don't even want to see their legs or feet," he said.

    He told police he tries not to hug the children. He said his wife went on some trips, but acknowledged he often took children on trips without other adults.

    He goes to Disney World about every other week, he told police, usually taking four or five students. He takes boys as well as girls. The trips are rewards for achievement, he said. He said he belongs to the Disney Vacation Club, which gives him places to stay and discounts on merchandise. He said he pays for the trips himself.

    Rex Sparklin, an attorney for Community Christian School, said he had not seen the police report and declined to discuss specifics. But he said the school "is very careful with its policies to do everything it can to protect its children."

    Some at the school say they have been concerned, or at least curious, about the Disney excursions for a long time. Little was known about the trips because the girls were not supposed to talk about them.

    It would have made other students jealous, girls told police.

    Community Christian School was struggling with debt when Harold Richard Baker arrived from North Florida Christian School in Tallahassee 12 years ago. He built the enrollment from 160 to 245. The school, which serves age 3 to grade 12, rents space from Westside Church of the Nazarene and now has an annual budget approaching $1-million. Full-time tuition is $3,350-$5,050.

    The CCS Web site identifies Baker as a music minister and former pastor. He lives in Seminole, in a house assessed at $73,700. He has been married for 30 years to Carol Baker, a librarian at Northside Christian School in St. Petersburg. They raised two daughters. One, Carrie Lynn, a second lieutenant in the Army, was among 159 people killed in 2000 when a cable car caught fire at a ski resort in Austria. Baker told police his father still hugs him and "Family is core."

    His school reflects his values: no bleached hair, no dancing at homecoming, tuck in your shirt, keep six inches apart in the halls. One year, Baker gave a lesson on the birds and the bees in chapel, according to Barbarita Clark, a former teacher. He called it "The Wasps and the Vultures."

    He has staunch supporters among the parents.

    "I found him to be very correct in every experience I've had," said Angela Smith, who has two children at the school. "I have been very happy. I have never found more correct people."

    Baker is by all accounts a Disney fanatic. He told police that on his 900th visit to the Magic Kingdom, he got to be grand marshal of the Main Street Parade.

    At such a small, insular school, most everyone knows that he takes children to Disney, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. He chaperones swimming trips in town and American Girl doll tea parties.

    Some of the trips are class trips with large groups and other adult chaperones. But one group of girls seems to go on more trips than the rest, parents, students and teachers say.

    Baker kept a list of some of those girls in his computer. It was labeled "Princess." Each girl's name was typed below the name of a Disney character, such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

    Many of the girls known as Princesses are daughters of school staff and board members. The parents of several girls declined to be interviewed for this article. Board members didn't return messages left on their phones and at their homes.

    One girl told police Baker was "like a second father."

    Another said Baker "is the best man in my life. He has done so much for my family. He's done everything for us."

    "It was a topic of conversations all the time basically how we thought the Disney trips were weird," said Staples, mother of an 8-year-old girl. "All the little girls want to go. It is this prestigious thing to get to go."

    At first, she was just uneasy, but after she found out Baker sometimes took the girls alone she became more concerned. She told her daughter's teacher that the child was not allowed to be alone with Baker.

    Most days he would take a few students across the street to Burger King. Staples' daughter was not allowed to go.

    The Disney invitations were usually last-minute, Staples said. Her daughter was invited in February, and Baker was to be the only adult.

    "I just said we were busy," she said.

    Fran Russell has been bothered by Baker's behavior since the summer of 1999, when she worked at the school's camp.

    A former child abuse investigator, she had considered joining the school staff and enrolling her two children, but felt that Baker was alone with the children too much. At the end of the summer, she told him so.

    "I said, "I would strongly encourage you to have someone with you when you go on these trips because accusations could ruin your career and this wonderful ministry,' " she recalled telling him. "The Bible says to abstain from all appearances of evil."

    He stared at his desk and didn't answer, she said.

    Former teacher Barbarita Clark thought something was odd in her job interview. Baker didn't ask her much about her qualifications, she said. He asked her if she was more of a Tigger-type person or an Eeyore-type person. She was puzzled, but Baker determined that she was a Tigger person and gave her a stuffed Tigger when she left.

    She was teacher of the year in 2002, working in the Discovery program for special education students. The Princesses, who were in a more advanced program, would brag amongst themselves about how many trips they had been on, she said. Her high-school age students were never invited.

    "He'd come up with some excuse just to take some trips to Disney," said Michael Weaver, 18, who graduated from the Discovery program last year. "We don't care, it's just the fact that he doesn't even ask us."

    Once, Clark saw Baker with a group of sixth- or seventh-graders, picking them up one at a time as if they were toddlers. The girls would wrap their arms around Baker's neck and their legs around his waist. He said he was trying to guess how much they weighed.

    "Wouldn't a scale be easier?" Clark asked him sarcastically. She said he seemed not to hear.

    At least three people took their concerns to police this spring. By then, the trips had been part of the culture at the school for years.

    Nobody made criminal allegations at first. Then someone claimed to have seen Baker touching and rubbing a girl on the buttocks. When police started asking questions, former students said he used to rub their knees and give piggy back rides. One former student said she had slept at his house about five times.

    Eventually, someone told police a girl cried in the bathroom, saying she didn't like Baker touching her. Three or four times, she was heard "making statements to the effect that . . . Baker was touching her private parts," according to the police report.

    That's when police submitted a report to the state Department of Children and Families. Investigators from the Sheriff's Office Division of Child Protection joined police at the school on May 16.

    When investigators interviewed the girl at school, she said she was crying in the bathroom because she was mad at her sister.

    Asked why someone would be concerned about her, she answered: "He always rubs my arm and stuff. It's just because he does it. It doesn't bother me. . . .

    "He tickles me all the time," she went on. "It's in this little itty bitty corner where you can't escape. That's the only thing I don't like, but I like being tickled. It's fun. He makes me giggle."

    He rubbed her back and neck on a drive to Orlando, she said. He tickled her in the pool at Typhoon Lagoon. She was the champion of the swimsuit changing contest, which involved switching suits in the bathroom and swimming laps in the pool. Her record: 60 suits.

    Carol Madura, a prevention specialist for the Pinellas County school system, read the Largo Police Department report at the request of the St. Petersburg Times. She said, "There are professional lines that seemed to have been crossed.

    "Any time you spend the night with children in a motel in the same room that raises the question of impropriety," Madura said. "I would think that if that happened in the Pinellas County schools that our professional standards department . . . would be opposed to that kind of behavior."

    Someone who provided several outfits for children to try on "would raise red flags in our school system," she said.

    Madura is a former child abuse investigator who conducts training programs in child abuse awareness in both public and private schools. She said it's important for teachers and administrators to remember that "even an appearance of impropriety is serious business."

    Community Christian School is accredited by the Florida Association of Christian Schools and Colleges. Dr. Howard Burke, director of the association, said the investigation would affect the school only if it revealed violations of the agency's standards. It has guidelines for things ranging from teacher credentials to building safety.

    The agency wouldn't necessarily concern itself with chaperones and field trips, he said, but if adults are sharing rooms with children unsupervised, "it would be an issue I would certainly think a parent would get into," he said. "I would question whether that would be appropriate."

    Burke, who has known Baker for years, calls him "caring" and credits him with saving the school several times when it was in financial trouble.

    Officials at Westside Church of the Nazarene are quick to say the church is only the landlord and does not run the school.

    "The church is very, very concerned about the allegations, without knowing whether they're true or not," said Jay Verona, an attorney for the church.

    And the church is "taking a variety of actions that are designed to protect the best interests of both the children of the school and the families of the schoolchildren, as well as the church."

    Verona wouldn't give specifics except to say that church officials want to start enforcing a provision of the lease that allows them to place two members onto the school's board of directors.

    At the year-end awards night, three days after the police came to the school, one of the Princesses gave a speech.

    The girl could barely speak through the tears as she described how much Baker meant to her. She looked back at Baker, sitting behind her on stage. He started to cry too.

    Mrs. Staples, in the audience, looked around the room. The other parents' reactions showed the division in their opinions about Baker, she believed.

    "It was half pride, half disgust," she said.

    The speech made her wonder, not for the first time, "How in the world can a little girl become that close to her principal?" Staples' daughter won't return to the school when the semester starts Aug. 5.

    Largo Detective David Green has heard from some parents, wanting to know what he found. "They don't feel easy," Green said. "They have a general concern for the welfare of not only their kids but every kid at the school."

    Sparklin, the school attorney, said the board is conducting an internal investigation and will notify parents of the results.

    Baker told the police the Disney trips have been on the decline because the climate in society could lead to misunderstandings.

    "The days are dark," he said.

    Asked by a reporter, he would not say whether the trips would continue.

    Board members and supporters have organized a prayer chain for him. They are asking people to pray that his true character will be revealed.

    - Kelley Benham can be reached at 727 893-8848 or benham@sptimes.com Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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