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January 24, 2004

New York Times

When school investigators called for Walter J. Turnbull to step down as the director of the Boys Choir of Harlem, it was understandable given that he had covered up a case of sexual abuse at his school. After learning that a 14-year-old student had been molested by a counselor over a two-year period, Dr. Turnbull, the choir's founder, failed to notify the authorities and allowed the counselor to continue supervising students at the Boys Choir Academy.

He also paid the counselor's $2,000 bail out of the choir's coffers and punished the victim by not allowing him to take a Japan trip and suggesting he needed counseling, according to a memo from the special commissioner of investigation for the city's schools. Yet the Department of Education and the choir yesterday completed an agreement under which Dr. Turnbull will stay on as artistic director, though he will resign as chief executive on Feb. 17. His brother, Horace, the choir's executive vice president, who was also implicated in the memo, will resign all his duties by the same date.

Despite Dr. Turnbull's conduct, his continued involvement with the choir was deemed essential for the survival of the world-renowned singing group. A spokesman for Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said last night in a statement: "The goal of the agreement was to preserve a unique opportunity for the children of our city to participate in the choir's renowned programs, given the choir's remarkable history and the promise it holds for future generations. At the same time, we strove to send the clear message that every adult in the public school system will be held accountable for the safety and well-being of every child in our charge."

Last night, Dr. Turnbull said in a statement: "I am delighted that I will be able to maintain my position as artistic director of the Boys Choir of Harlem, and that I can continue to contribute to the artistic development of the children of Harlem." To counter any resulting impression that it was soft on child abuse, the Education Department instituted safeguards - an independent monitor, a new dean of students position and a new principal.

So what changed? What made the Education Department move off its initial ultimatum: the Turnbulls go or the city severs ties to the school? In the end, it seems the choir's board forced the Department of Education's hand. By voting unanimously on Jan. 14 to keep Dr. Turnbull on - albeit in a modified capacity - the board left the Education Department with an almost impossible decision. If the department cut its ties to the academy, the choir would lose its school, ending a music program that has benefited thousands of Harlem children.

Ousting Dr. Turnbull further threatened to injure the choir in a larger way, damaging fund-raising at a time when the group has been struggling financially. The decision also had potential political pitfalls. The choir is a beloved Harlem institution, a major point of pride in the community. If the City's Education Department played a role in killing off the choir or seriously jeopardizing its future, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg could pay the price with black voters - a constituency he has already struggled to cultivate. Moreover, Dr. Turnbull and his supporters effectively made the case over the last two weeks that Dr. Turnbull was contrite and that the choir could not continue without him. There were rallies at which the fresh-faced members of the choir sang. Dr. Turnbull publicly acknowledged his error, saying on Jan. 13, "I handled it badly."

Dr. Turnbull's lawyer, Alan L. Fuchsberg, sent a letter to Harlem politicians on Wednesday asking them to express their support to Dennis M. Walcott, the deputy mayor who oversees education. Even without these efforts, Dr. Turnbull already had built up considerable good will in Harlem. Representative Charles B. Rangel of Harlem said on Wednesday: "It is hard for me to believe that Walter has been guilty of anything except poor judgment. He loves those children and they love him."

Dr. Turnbull had also established strong relations with the Giuliani administration, which paid off. Anthony P. Coles, a former deputy mayor, became the choir's point person in negotiations with the Education Department. Bart M. Schwartz, who was chief of the city's federal criminal division under Mr. Giuliani when the former mayor was the United States attorney, consulted with the choir on its proposal. Mr. Schwartz has worked with Stanley N. Lupkin, a former city commissioner of investigation, who will be the monitor of the choir.

Posted by acapnews at January 24, 2004 1:05 AM

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