A False Accusation, And a Fateful DecisionBy Timothy Dwyer
Devoted Va. Teacher Couldn't Endure Sullied Reputation
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2004; Page B01
ROANOKE -- The two-lane bridge that Ron Mayfield Jr. came to on the morning of his death stands almost 200 feet above the flowing waters where his father took him fishing as a boy and where, years later, he spent hours with his own son, casting for catfish and perch.
He made two final calls on his cell phone, gasping out a farewell to his wife and dialing 911 without saying a word. Then he lay the phone beside the road and straddled the knee-high metal bridge railing.
At an hour when the school day was just getting started six miles away at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, Mayfield leaned sideways and simply let go, falling into the river.
The note he left tucked in the Bible, on the front seat of the car he left properly parked in the rest area by the bridge, began this way:
"I am so sorry for what I have done, but there is no way I could carry on, absolutely no way."
The apology was for taking his own life. He had no need to apologize for what drove him to his death, because Mayfield knew it was untrue.
A student at Woodrow Wilson told authorities that he'd been assaulted by Mayfield, 55, who taught English to non-native speakers. Mayfield denied it, but his word, his reputation and his spotless record were not enough. He had been suspended, and police were called in to investigate.
What Mayfield didn't know -- as he mounted the bridge that morning -- was that the police had cleared him of wrongdoing.
No national statistics are kept on the number of false accusations students make against their teachers, but experts have said the evolving culture of the classroom has caused the number of reports of abusive teachers to increase in the past 15 years.
A study in Great Britain found that 1,782 allegations of abuse by teachers resulted in 96 prosecutions.
"There is a culture now where students know how to get rid of a teacher, they know how to get a teacher removed from a classroom," said Greg Lawler, general counsel for the Colorado Education Association.
Lawler said the change occurred after states began requiring schools to report alleged abuses by teachers because "stuff was being swept under the rug."
When he took the education association job 17 years ago, Lawler said he spent 30 percent of his time defending teachers accused of criminal acts. The volume of accusations has increased so dramatically that he and another lawyer now work full time defending teachers, he said. And Lawler has co-authored a book, "Guilty Until Proven Innocent," that describes the collateral damage done to teachers whom students falsely accuse of assault or sexual assault.
"Whenever there is an allegation," Lawler said, "there is a victim, whether it is the accused or the accuser."
Mayfield's friends and family said they are struggling to understand how a man who never had as much as a traffic ticket and had no history of depression or mental illness could be driven to such despair.
"So many of us are at a loss to comprehend what level of loneliness and isolation he was feeling to drive him to such a tragic end," said Anita Price, president of the Roanoke Education Association. "It is hard to just even begin to fathom how someone could feel so totally alone and isolated."His Second Profession
Myrna Mayfield sensed that something was not right with her husband as soon as she got into his car.
"I don't know how to tell you this," he said, "but they have put me on administrative leave. This kid accused me of hitting him."
It was about 4 p.m. Oct. 1, and Ronald Mayfield's hard-won world very suddenly had come untracked.
Teaching had been his profession of choice, but when he graduated from college, there were few teaching jobs to be had. Instead, he followed his father and grandfather into railroad work.
After 20 years with the Norfolk and Western Railroad -- a career that outlasted his first marriage -- Mayfield took advantage of an early-retirement offer and returned to college in 1990. He was determined to make his second career as a teacher.
Mayfield received a master's degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in 1992, the same year his son, Robert, graduated from college. Mayfield spent a year in Japan teaching English and then worked in Saudi Arabia, teaching English to members of the Saudi military.
Myrna, a native of the Philippines, was working in Saudi Arabia as a midwife. Her first impression was that he was very friendly, very kind and very talkative. Slight of build, he still shopped in the boys' department, where it was easier to find pants with a 28-inch inseam and 28-inch waist.
When they came to Virginia to get married, Mayfield gave her a tour of the area, raving about the mountains and showing her the Blue Ridge Parkway overlook near the bridge over the Roanoke River. And when they moved to Virginia for good, he took a job teaching English to foreign students in the Roanoke public schools.
He was clearly distraught that October afternoon when he picked up Myrna at her job. He told her that the accusation that caused his suspension was the vengeance of an angry teenager.
In fact, Mayfield said, he had touched the chronically disruptive 13-year-old on the chest a week earlier, emphasizing that the boy needed to behave and pay attention.
When the boy acted up again that morning, Mayfield said he ordered him from the classroom. The boy responded by complaining to the principal that Mayfield had assaulted him the week before.
The boy, the son of immigrants from India, had polio as a toddler and uses a wheelchair.
"He was in a wheelchair," said Mayfield's mother, Elsie, 78, "and that's why Ronnie was so upset. He said they were going to put him in jail because the child said he hit him."
She said he feared his career was ruined.
"Oh, he loved teaching," his mother said. "He told me he was going to teach until -- that he was going to teach forever, is what he said."
While the schools and police investigated the case for more than two weeks, Mayfield became convinced that when the facts of the case were made public, he would look guilty because initially he had not admitted even that he had touched the boy.
"I'm going to be portrayed in the press as a monster," he wrote to his wife.Warned About Student
Mayfield was warned about the troubled boy in the wheelchair at the start of the school year. A colleague took him aside to say that the boy disrupted her class the year before.
The boy was Abdul Nahibkhil. His parents, Abdul and Shina Nahibkhil, had come to the United States from India about 27 months earlier. The parents, who speak no English, were interviewed, with their daughter Jasmine, 20, serving as an interpreter.
"When the investigators came, my parents told them that in India, teachers hit students all the time and they didn't care if Mr. Mayfield hit Abdul or not," the daughter said. "They said if he hit him, he deserved it. But it didn't matter. They didn't care if he hit him or not. They wanted the matter dropped, and they said that they would make Abdul go to school and apologize to Mr. Mayfield."
Abdul denied that he had been disruptive in class. Another sister, Mina, a senior in high school, said she had Mayfield as a teacher last year and really liked him.
The parents said they were upset that no one from the school had immediately notified them about their son's accusation. They said if the principal had called them, they would have told him to drop the whole thing and get Mayfield back in the classroom.
Superintendent E. Wayne Harris and Vicki Price, then-acting director of the city's social service agency, declined to comment. They said the investigation was a personnel matter and was private.The Depression Grows
Mayfield was unaware that Abdul's parents wanted to drop the case against him, his wife said. He contacted an attorney from the Virginia Education Association to handle the case. And as each day went by, he grew more and more depressed.
On Saturday, Oct. 11, he picked up his wife from work and gave her some startling news.
"I'm not supposed to be here today," he told her. "I thought about committing suicide today."
And then he handed her a three-page suicide letter."Hi, Honey," it began, "I am writing this to come clean with everybody. . . . I cannot have my face on television and in the newspaper over this incident, an incident where I was attempting to teach Abdul a lesson and wake him up. . . . I am so tired and so nervous, almost paranoid that the police are going to be knocking on our door at any moment to arrest me."
His wife wept.
"I have to see your mother and talk about this," she recalls telling him. "I cannot carry this myself anymore. I can't handle it anymore."
So they drove to his parents' house in Vinton.
He had not told his parents about his suspension. They were stunned.
Why, they asked, did he feel the allegation was such a big deal? He tried to explain, telling them that when the news came out, it would bring shame to the family and cause them pain.
His father, Ronald, a soft-spoken man who jokes that he cannot get a word in edgewise with his chatty wife, spoke up. "Ronnie, if you really think that this is going to hurt us, if you commit suicide that is going to hurt us a lot worse."
They talked some more, and awhile later, Mayfield told them he had changed his mind, that he was not going to kill himself. They asked for his promise and he gave it. Then they all sat and ate vegetable soup that his mother had made and had her blackberry cobbler for dessert.
On the way home, he told his wife that if anyone found out that he had considered killing himself, it would make him look guilty. And then he never spoke of it again.
On Oct. 15, the police informed the school that they had found no evidence to support the allegation against Mayfield. School officials did not pass the information on to Mayfield, his family said.
The next morning, Mayfield was out of bed before 6:30 a.m. He told his wife he had to visit a friend.
"I won't be long," he said, kissing his wife. "I love you."
The soaring bridge that carries the Blue Ridge Parkway over the Roanoke River held such a special place in his life that he used a photo of it as his computer screensaver.
When she got his final phone call at 8:01 a.m. he did not tell her that was where he had gone. In the minutes after he dropped into the river, his cell phone, abandoned on the sidewalk, rang again and again without answer.
"Ronnie!" she recalled screaming in frustration. "Where are you? "Why aren't you answering your phone?"
The flow of the waters where Mayfield fished as a boy and a man is controlled by a dam. The waters were slowed the morning after his death, lowering the river level to aid in the search for his body. Derek Chodorowski, a ranger with the National Park Service, found it about 11 a.m., caught on rocks that normally are beneath the water.
At his funeral, a student gave the family a letter. It said: "He taught us how to be courteous and polite like he was. I would never forget what he taught us. Thanks for being a great teacher, Mr. Mayfield."© 2004 The Washington Post Company