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A History of Sex With Students, Unchallenged

New York Times, U.S.A.,  By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI, October 10, 2006

BAYONNE, N.J. Many in this gray, insular city are at a loss to explain why Diane Cherchio West was allowed to continue working in the public school system for two decades after she was caught in 1980 kissing and groping a 13-year-old student at an eighth-grade dance.

Why, after her promotion to guidance counselor at Bayonne High School, no one alerted social services, school officials or the police when she became pregnant by an 11th grader she supervised, Steven West, and married him upon his graduation in 1985.

Or why, when that baby, Steven Jr., grew to be a teenager, no one balked as his 15-year-old friend moved in with Ms. West, who then seduced the friend with Scooby-Doo boxer shorts and evening jaunts to sports bars and used her school authority to rearrange his classes around their secret trysts.

It was not until 2001, when relatives of the boy, Christopher Castlegrande, filed a complaint with the police of statutory rape against Ms. West, that she left her $74,000-a-year job and lost her unfettered access to Bayonne High Schools students.

After Ms. West was arrested, school officials insisted for more than a year that the allegation was the only accusation of misconduct in a sterling 24-year career. They allowed her to take an early retirement package that fattened her pension, and gave her a farewell party with cake and ice cream. When Ms. West pleaded guilty in 2005 to sexual assault charges, glowing references from co-workers, supervisors and friends helped persuade a judge to sentence her only to probation. She was also spared the ordeal of having to register as a sex offender.

Now, with Mr. Castlegrande suing the school district for failing to protect students from a woman with a sexual appetite for under-age boys, this city of 62,000 has been forced to examine how little was done to stop her earlier. Even as the news media were saturated with coverage of teachers like Pamela Smart and Mary Kay Letourneau who slept with their students, Bayonne averted its eyes for years.

Some blame small-town politics; Ms. Wests father is a prominent businessman here. Others see a double standard in which people are reluctant to view teenage boys as victims. Mayor Joseph Doria attributes the silence to shock, shame and misplaced civic pride from people afraid the case would tarnish the reputation of Bayonne schools.

No one bothered to do the math, said Mr. Doria, who, like many people in town, knew that Ms. West had married a former student, but did not seem to realize that the relationship had started and that their child had been born when her husband was still in school. And the people who suspected didn't want to make it a big issue.

The legal age of consent in New Jersey is 16 except if the adult is acting in loco parentis, like a teacher or guardian, in which case it is 18.

Bayonne, on a peninsula jutting between Upper New York Bay and Newark Bay, has an assortment of Irish, Polish, Italian, Egyptian and Hispanic enclaves crammed next to one another yet separated by language, culture and economic status. Ms. West, now 52, was raised in one of the citys more comfortable Italian sections, the daughter of John Cherchio, a regular on whos who lists here, who ran a successful construction and waste-carting business.

Ms. West declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article, and her lawyer did not respond to several telephone messages left at his office. Nor did her father, or his lawyers.

But court records summarizing her presentencing psychiatric evaluation say Ms. West described her upbringing as happy and uneventful until age 14, when she became pregnant by an abusive boyfriend and gave the child up for adoption.

By 23, Diane Cherchio had graduated from college and was a special education teacher at Dr. Walter F. Robinson elementary school. Her intelligence and dedication won the admiration of supervisors and colleagues, who told investigators decades later that they had been stunned to see her pawing at a 13-year-old student named Jorge at an eighth-grade dance.

The school principal at the time, Daniel Doyle, swore in a statement to prosecutors last year that he spoke to a half-dozen teachers and became convinced that she and the student were sexually involved. Diane has a thing for young boys, Mr. Doyle recalled being told, according to court records.

Mr. Doyle said in the statement that he wrote to the superintendent asking that Ms. Cherchio be fired, but was startled to learn, upon returning to school in the fall, that she had instead become a guidance counselor at the high school.

I accepted it as a political maneuver, said Mr. Doyle, now retired, who grew up near the Cherchio family. He added that he suspected her fathers business and political connections allowed her to escape punishment.

But the superintendent who promoted Ms. Cherchio, James Murphy, said in a recent interview that he does not know her father, and was never pressured by city officials. Mr. Murphy insisted that he was never told about the accusations, adding, Thats a very serious matter, and I would have treated it that way if I had been informed of it.

Neither school officials nor Mr. Doyle can locate any written report about the episode.

At Bayonne High School, the young counselors enthusiasm when helping with class schedules and college applications along with her fashion sense and fluency in pop culture made her a hit with students, according to interviews with several faculty members. When she became pregnant in 1984, former colleagues recalled, she said that her babys father was a musician in the hit musical Beatlemania.

Within months, however, another story began to circulate. According to records in the Hudson County prosecutors office, Mary Cerreta, an elementary school teacher, had heard from her niece that Steve West, then a junior at the high school, was an expectant father; Mr. Doyle, the elementary school principal, heard from his stepson that the mother-to-be was his and Steves guidance counselor.

Asked about the relationship years later by a court-appointed psychiatrist, Ms. West said that when they met, Steve had been recovering from a suicide attempt and she had been desperately lonely. I looked at it like we were saving each other, she said, according to the summary in the court file.

In his statement to prosecutors, Mr. Doyle said he was shaken by the news that his former employee had again become sexually involved with a student. But he said he did not report it to school administrators or legal authorities because his previous complaint had accomplished nothing. She was somebody elses problem now, he is quoted as saying in the statement.

Diane Cherchio was 31 when she married Steve West after his graduation. The couple became fixtures on West 26th Street, said James Rentas, who lived across the street. In the years that followed, they were often seen walking the familys terrier or hurrying their three children to soccer and baseball practice.

But the unusual thing neighbors noticed was the large bay windows that the Wests had installed on the side of the house overlooking the Bayonne High School athletic field. On many afternoons, they said, Ms. West watched intently as the football, baseball or soccer teams practiced.

By the spring of 2000, one star on that baseball diamond was Christopher Castlegrande, a freshman so burly and quick with a bat that he became the varsitys starting catcher.

Though he excelled athletically, Chris had a learning disability and a troubled home life.

Ms. West, who had been divorced since 1996, was close to Chriss father, Joseph Castlegrande, their sons having played Babe Ruth baseball together. When Mr. Castlegrande complained about his debts and his strained relationship with his son, according to his statements to the authorities, Ms. West invited Chris to live with her and her three children.

Now 21 and considering a career in law enforcement, the younger Mr. Castlegrande declined to be interviewed for this article, along with his lawyer, Robert Bianchi, his father and the aunt and uncle who reported the affair to the police. Mr. Castlegrande also sued Ms. West who settled for $400,000 last year, according to court records and then the Bayonne district and its top administrators, in a civil case now pending in federal court in Newark.

According to Ms. Wests and Chriss statements to the authorities at the time of her arrest, several weeks after the teenager moved in, she sat next to him on the couch while watching television, put her hand on his leg and kissed him.
Within a week, the statements say, they were having sex.

At school, Chris told investigators, Ms. West rearranged his classes so they could meet at home during lunch. She wrote him excuses for absences and hall passes, and gave him her electronic security card to enter and leave the school building. Stick with me, I can get you into a good school and get you a baseball scholarship, she told him, according to Chriss statement to the police.

At home, Ms. West fluctuated between surrogate mother and secret lover.
Chris told the authorities that she had opened a bank account for him, had taken him on vacations to Utah with her children, had set his curfew and bedtime, and had helped arrange an operation on his foot. And, several times a week, he said in the statement, she sneaked him into her bedroom to spend the night.

Eventually, according to the police statements from Chris and Ms. West, Steven Jr. grew troubled by the close relationship, so Chris moved in with an aunt and uncle.

The aunt, Tammy Laszkow, told prosecutors that she was suspicious that the relationship between Chris and Ms. West had turned sexual and began secretly recording Chriss telephone calls from her home. In December 2001, Mrs. Laszkow taped Ms. West reading Chris a newspaper article about a boy who had shot his father during a hunting trip, and began to fear for Joseph Castlegrandes life, so she called the police.

In talking about the relationships with a court-appointed psychiatrist last year, Ms. West said that when she took up with Steve and Chris, she thought it was acceptable because she had had a child at 14. Later, she said, she realized teenage boys can suffer emotional damage if they become sexually involved with an adult, especially an authority figure like a teacher.

It is unclear what lessons, if any, Bayonne school administrators took from the episodes because they, too, have declined to discuss the matter, citing the pending lawsuit.

Like many who live here, Enrique Santana, 21, who played baseball with Mr. Castlegrande and had Ms. West as a counselor, said he was shocked to learn about the relationship but not about the tepid response.

Asked whether he was confident that the town would be more vigilant in protecting children like his own daughter in the future, he shrugged. Even if you knew, really knew it was happening at the time, who could you go to? Mr. Santana said in an interview. This is Bayonne, a small town.

Sandra Jamison contributed research.

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