Fourteen months before Chesterfield County Supervisor Ed Barber was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting his teenage stepdaughter, parents at Crenshaw Elementary School were up in arms.
In late October 2004, a parent had seen kindergarten students rubbing the shoulders and back of Barber, a gym teacher at the Midlothian school for 26 years. Barber was slumped over in a chair, with two students behind him.
To many people who knew Barber, the accusations seemed either shocking or benign: Barber, a well-respected, even-keel politician on the county's conservative board of supervisors, claimed the accusations were blown out of proportion by a couple of over-zealous parents.
Terry Barber, his wife, says her husband may have used poor judgment, but the back rubbing was a harmless byproduct of affectionate students who gravitated toward one of the few male teachers at Crenshaw. "It was just innocent," she says.
But the back rubs and back scratching were more than an isolated incident. They were routine in Barber's gym classes, Barber acknowledges in a letter to school officials, obtained recently by Style Weekly.
The notion of such contact between kindergarten students and teachers raises new questions about school policy.
Most, if not all, public schools, of course, prohibit sexual advances and sexual harassment among employees and students, but none of the school districts contacted by Style -- including Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover have employee conduct policies that apply to back rubs or back scratching, or specifically, the touching of students that isn't overtly sexual.
Psychologists say it's key to know who initiates the touching. Two of the children in Barber's gym class, ages 6 and 7, told their parents that Barber would choose students to rub his shoulders and scratch his back, according to two letters sent to the Chesterfield school system in 2004. One of the children told her mother that Barber asked students not to tell their parents about the back rubs and back scratching.
Barber maintains in a letter to school officials that the students initiated the back massages, but in a letter to school officials dated Nov. 1, 2004, he goes on to describe the practice as a "special activity."
"It is not unusual for children to ask to 'scratch my back.' There are times when I allow this to take place. It is generally when the entire class is seated in front of me and one or two children will walk behind me and scratch my shoulders," he writes. "Often I will use this 'privilege' to promote better listening as it seems to be a special activity in the minds of some children. Some children will sit quietly for the opportunity to be a 'scratcher.'"
Style contacted several psychologists who deal with sexually abused children. They agreed to address the issue of back rubs and back scratching but not the Barber case specifically. A teacher who asks for or allows students to rub his or her back, they say, is clearly acting inappropriately.
"It's not OK," says Dwight Colley, a psychologist in Charlottesville who specializes in sex offender treatment. "Whenever that teacher says anything, that's gospel [to young students]. Things are black and white to them," he says. "The teacher needs counseling about the inappropriateness of this behavior."
Phyllis Byrne, a sex abuse counselor in Culpeper who deals with abused children, says teachers who request back rubs from children take "away one of their protective instincts. It could be very confusing for a child. Because it's a teacher and a person of authority when you put it in a classroom and you're setting it up as a reward it's unhealthy behavior."
Humberto Fabelo, associate professor of social work at Virginia Commonwealth University, says in his private clinical practice he's never heard of children voluntarily asking to rub or scratch an adult's back other than a close family member's unless there's been some history of sexual abuse in the child's past.
"I've been around lots and lots of lots of children," Fabelo says. "The only children that will ever initiate physical contact with an adult, other than a hug, have been sexually abused. Kids that have not been exposed to sexual abuse are not going to ask to rub an adult's back."
While he isn't familiar with the Barber case specifically, Fabelo says that initiating back rubs from young children and using them as a privilege for good behavior is a clear power play and abuse of authority.
"The way the predator's mind works: You don't want to make that final step seem weird 'See, there's nothing wrong here, we're doing this in front of others,'" Fabelo says. "Sooner or later, the next step will be having the kid alone and in private. These are classical pedophilic types of behaviors. I would see, immediately, red flags."
At least five parents met with school officials and Barber to discuss the incident, according to the documents obtained by Style. Child Protective Services and police investigated, but found no evidence of sexual misconduct in November 2004.
School officials had Barber sign a statement agreeing to no longer allow his students to voluntarily give him shoulder massages or scratch his back. This was placed in his personnel file. Then they allowed him to return to Crenshaw and continue teaching in November 2004.
There was no other disciplinary action taken against Barber that Style could confirm. He continued teaching until his arrest on charges of sexual battery against his stepdaughter Dec. 29, 2005.
"I don't think that's enough, honestly," Fabelo says. "A letter in a personnel file doesn't get at his understanding as to why that's inappropriate. In the workplace, if that were to happen, that would be considered sexual harassment. Kids are not empowered to stand up to an adult."
Barber pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sexual battery against his stepdaughter June 28, 2006, but maintains his innocence.
His wife, Terry, continues to stand behind her husband, adding that the sexual abuse claims were made by an emotionally unstable 16-year-old who had been in and out of counseling since the age of 4. Barber pleaded guilty to those charges, she says, because he couldn't risk potential jail time and is too devoted to his family to put the Barbers through a nasty trial.
"I love my husband to death, but I'm also a mother. If I thought for one second that this had happened, I would not be supporting Ed," Terry Barber says. "But I know in my heart that this didn't happen. My daughter had every opportunity to tell someone. She didn't go to any of her sisters. She didn't go to her grandmother. She never told her stepmother."
Mike Sharman, the attorney representing Barber's stepdaughter, who filed a $7 million lawsuit against her stepfather in March, says his client's current counseling is focusing "only on the problems related to Mr. Barber's sexual abuse of her and Mrs. Barber's studied refusal to see the facts of that abuse."
Sharman also maintains that his client "previously told Mrs. Barber" about the sexual abuse prior to the 2005 incident. And he says that if the school system had treated the back-rubbing incident more seriously in 2004, the outcome with his client might have been different.
"Anybody who understands childhood sexual abuse would be alerted to [the repeated back rubs] as a potential case of what is known as grooming behavior, where the molester grooms the child for possible future molestation," Sharman says. "Had Barber been appropriately counseled or investigated at that time, who knows if the 2005 event against my client who knows what would have occurred?"
Chesterfield school officials declined to comment on the Barber investigation, or the allegations from parents that the back rubs were frequent and involuntary. Billy K. Cannaday Jr., who was superintendent of Chesterfield County Public Schools when the incident occurred, also declined to comment through a spokesman. Cannaday is now state superintendent for public instruction.
"It was not his practice as superintendent of Chesterfield County schools to comment on personnel practices, and that remains his posture on that," says Charles Pyle, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Education.
Colley, the psychologist from Charlottesville, says that at the very least, the accusations against Barber in 2004 warranted counseling and close monitoring from school administrators.
"Listen up to this kind of stuff," Colley says. "Somebody needs to at least pay attention to this."
When told by a reporter that Barber is the individual in question, Colley ends the interview. As part of his court-appointed sex offender counseling, Barber was assigned to Colley's group sessions in Charlottesville seven months ago.
Barber, he says, is now his client. S