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#HereToo: RCSD and Edwin Fleming hit with volley of new sexual-abuse allegations

Meaghan M. McDermott Steve Orr
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

The reckoning for film mogul Harvey Weinstein began with a single tweet by actor Rose McGowan.

Weinstein had been accused of sexual abuse before, but had managed to squelch those accusations and intimidate victims. He fell when one more accusation at the right moment triggered a cascade of allegations.

#MeToo storms grow from the single flap of a butterfly’s wing, and here too, in Rochester, that pattern holds.

Two months ago, a local woman anonymously initiated a lawsuit that accused Edwin D. Fleming, a once-prominent Rochester music teacher, of raping her in his East High School office.

The Democrat and Chronicle happened upon the legal filing and published an investigation based on it, and the allegations of a second woman, in mid-November. The story revealed that top Rochester city school officials knew of Fleming's misconduct but chose not to report it.

Then the #HereToo floodgates opened. 

Six more women have spoken with the lawyer who brought the original suit. All of them say they were molested by Fleming when they were students at East or West high schools in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Haunted for life

Edwin D. Fleming, 1976

"I can’t even catch my breath," one of the new accusers told a reporter, describing her reaction to the D&C article. "This is something that’s haunted me my whole life. I want him to be exposed."

That woman said Fleming forced intercourse on her and stalked her after she graduated. Another woman said he raped her, once displaying a handgun.

A third new accuser said he forced her to perform oral sex once then threw her out of his car after she refused to do it again. A fourth said he fondled her in public, then became furious when she walked away.

Their lawyer, John Bansbach, as well as reporters at the D&C, have heard secondhand of an additional half-dozen or so women who say they were victimized by Fleming but haven't yet made themselves known.

"I’m really overwhelmed," Bansbach said recently. “These women say they’re glad they’ve come forward. They feel better knowing they’re not the only ones."

Most or all of the eight women with whom he's spoken intend to sue Fleming and the school district under the auspices of New York's Child Victims Act, which allows people to bring suit over old child sex-abuse claims.

He expects to begin filing initial legal papers in the next wave of lawsuits early in the new year.

Fleming, now 87 and living in South Carolina, declined to comment when contacted by the USA Today Network before the Nov. 21 story was published.

The initial accuser, for whom the D&C is using the pseudonym Betty, said in an interview in early November that she hoped relating her experience would encourage other women to come forward.

In a second interview in mid-December, Betty said she was proud to be a catalyst.

"The more who come forward, the stronger we are together. There’s something very empowering when you stand up for a wrong that was done not just to you, but to other women," she said. "Before this happened, when I hadn’t talked about it, I was ashamed, I felt stupid and embarrassed about this and now I feel empowered.

"He may not still be doing this now, but he did it to a lot of other young girls and I’m glad that we as a group are standing up and saying to him, 'You did this and we are going to hold you accountable for it.'"

'100% predator'

Fleming, a Pennsylvania native, began teaching in the Rochester school district in 1966. He was at West High School until 1970 or 1971, then shifted to East.

Fleming was an accomplished singer and teacher. He headed the music program at East, which was then considered the best in the city.

After the Nov. 21 investigation was published, numerous former students posted in long strings about Fleming on Facebook. Many of them were complimentary, saying he was a favorite teacher and had never done anything untoward.

Other comments were poisonous. "I knew it," one female East High graduate wrote. "100% predator," posted another.

The author of that post, Victoria Visiko, explained the divergent views.

"There were female students he hugged and those he didn't hug, for whatever reason. I was one of the hugging ones," said Visiko, who graduated from East in 1976. "These hugs would get longer and longer and longer, and his face would get closer and closer."

The hugging stopped after he fondled her in front of a group of students and she rebuffed him.

Visiko is the only one of the eight women who so far has agreed to the use of her real  name in interviews and on legal papers.

An undated aerial photo of East High School.

Fleming remained at East until the summer of 1981. That's when, Betty, who had graduated two years earlier, approached a school district administrator to lodge a complaint about Fleming's misconduct.

The administrator, Josephine Kehoe, who is now retired, told the Democrat and Chronicleshe asked Fleming to resign but did not notify police or other authorities. Other school district officials, including then-Superintendent Laval Wilson, signed off on that decision, the newspaper learned.

Fleming left East that summer. He was a substitute teacher, and possibly worked full time, in several other Rochester-area school districts. No reports have surfaced of misconduct at those districts.

Even today, anger of the school district's kid-gloves handling of Fleming rankles Betty, the woman who turned him in.

"He is a hunter and he was allowed to prey on young women, and even after I spoke up the first time, they just sent him to another hunting ground," she said.

'He got really, really mad'

Betty was not the only student to inform adults of Fleming's behavior.

One woman who said she had encounters with Fleming not long after he arrived at East recalled that he comforted her one day when she was melancholy, then began to praise her looks.

“A 15-year-old girl who didn’t have much self-worth is being told by a really good-looking older person things like ‘If my wife only understood me the way you do,’” she recalled.

Some time later, Fleming asked her out to dinner. On the way, he stopped in a parking lot at Ellison Park and pressured her into performing oral sex on him. Afterward, he took her to the restaurant and bought her a daiquiri and lamb chops.

He asked her to dinner a second time. The woman said she reluctantly agreed, but when he stopped at the park and asked her to gratify him, she refused.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to do that again.’ He was insistent. He tried to push my head down on his lap. He took himself out of his pants,” she said. “He kept holding my head down. I said, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ He got really, really mad.”

This time, he dropped her off several blocks from her home and made her walk through the cold. Fleming never talked to her again.

The woman said she later told the school principal, the dean of students and a teacher that Fleming had hurt her and been “very touchy-feely.” None of them did anything more than tell her to “buck up.”

Another woman who was a student at West High School said Fleming cultivated her by at first belittling her and criticizing her singing. “No matter what I did, it wasn’t good enough,” she said.

He told her private lessons were the only way she would improve. He became increasingly familiar at these lessons, culminating in episodes in which he raped her in his car, his school office, his home and a camper.

At one point she approached a counselor and "tried to explain what was going on." But her shame and fear kept her from being explicit, and the counselor did nothing.

A teacher also came to suspect what Fleming was doing and confronted him. But nothing changed and the teacher never brought up the topic again.

After the woman graduated from West, she said Fleming stalked her, showing up unannounced on her doorstep. She was able to avoid him and he eventually lost interest.

"I was afraid of him. He was a very persuasive man but at the same time he was a bully," the woman said. "After years and years and years of therapy, I thought I had it under control. Then I read the article."

Champagne and a pistol

A new lawsuit accuses former East High School music teacher Edwin Fleming of sexually abusing and groping two female students in the 1970s.

Another woman dated her alleged abuse to the 1980-81 school year, just before Fleming resigned his job at East. She has come forward only haltingly.

"To read those horrific stories in the recent article in the D&C, and to see so many pictures of that predator was simply gut-wrenching for me. It stopped me in my tracks; I could barely function," she wrote in an email to the newspaper.

In school, she found herself one of Fleming's "huggers." He first showed public affection toward her, she recalled, then progressed to kissing and fondling her in private.

Fleming had her come to school one Saturday, and then raped her in his office attached to a music room, she said.

On another occasion, Fleming tracked her down when she was housesitting.

"He brought a bottle of Champagne with him. He walked in, opened the bottle, put what looked like a pistol down on a nearby table, and then raped me. I froze in fear and confusion," the woman recalled. "A few days later, he called me … and asked what I enjoyed about those experiences. His sexual abuse of me went hand in hand with an ongoing, emotional manipulation. It sickens me to this day."

In retrospect, the woman said she regrets not doing something to stop him.

"One of the hardest things to navigate in all of this has been the shame I felt for so very long," she said.

She found herself "in awe" of Betty and the other plaintiff who filed suit last month, Laura, for filing the first lawsuits and speaking openly to the D&C about their experiences. "They had the courage I felt unable to muster," the woman said.

Eight women speaking as one

The feeling of shame and the notion that they should have done more are common threads in the accounts of those who have spoken up about Fleming.

The woman who attended West — the earliest alleged victim of Fleming to emerge so far — contacted Bansbach the same day the first story was published and asked if she could speak to Betty and Laura.

She wanted to apologize.

"I told them if I had done something, maybe it wouldn’t have happened to them," the woman said of her conversation at that meeting.

"She was holding a lot of blame on herself for what happened to us," Betty said. "We spent most of the meeting telling her it was OK, nobody had come forward. Well, I did, and nothing happened anyway. I don't think she had any reason to blame herself or hold herself in poor regard."

Betty said that meeting, and the knowledge that so many other woman are stepping forward, is a salve.

"With the #MeToo movement, attitudes are changing and assaulted women have a voice. Before, we had nobody. Now with all of us together, I feel like we are one. We are eight women, but we are all speaking with one voice.

"I have a friend who knows about all of this and she told me this: 'Remind yourself every day that you are part of a movement that is as important to women as the right to vote, you are part of the right to speak.’ That made me feel really strong, and this is important to the history of women, one big huge step forward for women who have been assaulted by somebody. We have the right to speak."

MCDERMOT@Gannett.com

SORR@Gannett.com

Why an East High teacher accused of raping a student went on to teach elsewhere