Suit claims Phoenix schools tolerated widespread sexual abuse for decades

In this 1973 Emerson J. Dillon Middle School yearbook photo, Catherine Duringshoff is pictured near the time she claims she was raped by an EJD teacher. Duringshoff and other plaintiffs this week sued the Phoenix Central School District under the state Child Victims Act.

No fewer than 3 women say they were raped by teachers

OSWEGO — A lawsuit filed this week under state Child Victims Act statutes alleges a pair of faculty members of the Phoenix Central School District perpetrated widespread abuse against students in the 1960s and 1970s.

The 62-page complaint, a civil suit in state Supreme Court filed in Oswego and reviewed by The Palladium-Times, concerns four individuals, all of whom were adolescent girls at the time of the alleged abuse. For this story, The Palladium-Times spoke with two of the plaintiffs — Catherine Duringshoff, who attended Emerson J. Dillon Middle School (EJD) and John C. Birdlebough High School (JCB), and another woman who attended JCB, whose identity is known to the Pall-Times but henceforth referred to only as Plaintiff 1.

Questioned about the allegations, the Phoenix Central School  District responded in a statement:

"The district is committed to the safety of all our students - past and present. The district is declining to comment at this time as it has no direct knowledge as to any pending actions of such a nature."

The district declined to respond to questions about current policy about student-teacher relationships, or if any measures are in place to discourage such relationships.

The earliest allegation in the complaint goes back to 1967 when, as a high schooler at JCB, Plaintiff 1 claims she was “groomed” and abused by music teacher Ronald Smith over the course of two years. Smith raped her multiple times both on and off school grounds, the plaintiff said. It was her first sexual experience.

“It was a sick game for them,” she said in a recent interview. Word of their sexual contact got around quickly in the small community.

The plaintiff said at a community picnic, another teacher approached her and asked a vulgar question related to the plaintiff and Smith’s relationship.

“It was horrible, and the shame of it prevented me from wanting to tell anybody,” the plaintiff said. “If I’d told my mother, she’d have disowned me on the spot. When I figured out much later what had really happened, I realized I was a victim.”

She was coming forward now, the plaintiff said, because “this has to stop.”

“It happens to girls, to boys, I encountered it and the damage is done but I’m doing this for other people,” she said.

Both plaintiffs who spoke with The Palladium-Times are represented by attorney James Marsh, who said Phoenix school administrators were either complicit in the abuse or lacked the “institutional control” to stop it.

“When you see what’s happening in this district over 20 years, you have to say: why? Why didn’t somebody do something? Or when it was discovered after the fact, why didn’t they take action then?”

Previously, when survivors of child abuse turned 22, they could no longer file state civil action against their alleged abusers. The state Child Victim’s Act (CVA), passed in 2019, blew up the statute of limitations, increased the age limit to 55 and unleashed a flood of suits against schools, churches and organizations like the Boy Scouts of America. A one-year filing period for lawsuits commenced in August 2019, but was extended an additional year this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The CVA also increases the age limit for felony reports of criminal child sex abuse from age 23 to 28.

Marsh said the claims against the Phoenix district are, unfortunately, not uncommon and follow a pattern well known to his firm. Rural communities, he said, are rarely equipped to deal with abusers.

“Often times, a school district is the most powerful institution in that community — there’s tremendous power to suspend or expel students, to decide who graduates and who gets left behind,” Marsh said. “These are powerful institutions. These victims felt outsmarted, out governed and of the mentality that ‘you’re only asking for trouble’ if you try to ‘fight city hall.’”

Catherine ‘Cathy’ Duringshoff is a first-generation American, her parents moving from Scandinavia to the Phoenix area in the early 1970s.

“We lived right by the river and it was beautiful,” Duringshoff told the Pall-Times, while recalling the “isolation of being the foreigners on the corner.”

“We were isolated in our European household, then I’d walk to school and become Americanized,” she said. “Going to school was great.”

Her idyllic life ended shortly after she started at JCB, Duringshoff said. Teacher James “Jimmy” Middaugh began showing an interest in her, which at the time was “mesmerizing.”

“He was so nice and charming, he joked a lot with the students and we were comfortable around him,” she said. “Kids hoped they would get him for class. He made us feel special.”

While walking home from school one day, Duringshoff said, Middaugh offered her a ride. The flirtation turned more serious, she claims, until Middaugh offered her a job babysitting his young children. While driving her home from a babysitting shift, Middaugh raped her, Duringshoff said.

“It was violent,” she said. “He kept saying it was the utmost way to show someone you love them.”

He apologized the following day, Duringshoff said, but the rape continued on a regular basis until she entered high school in 1974.

“You couldn’t tell anybody, there was nobody to go to,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I’ve had somebody validate what happened to me.”

The Palladium-Times has filed and is awaiting the return of records requests with the Phoenix Central School District for personnel files for Smith and Middaugh, including any disciplinary action. Middaugh died in 2018; efforts to contact Smith were unsuccessful.

According to a New York State Education Department (NYSED) document obtained by The Palladium-Times, Smith’s teaching certificate was revoked in 1993 on the grounds of “substantial question as to moral character.”

“During the 1976-77 school years, while employed by the Phoenix Central School District, (Smith) engaged in a sexual relationship with a 10th grade student, which included several instances of sexual intercourse and oral sex which occurred on school grounds,” the document reads, seemingly corrorborating the broad strokes of the claims by Plaintiff 1 albeit with a different young female but using the same grooming techniques to continue to commit rape.

Roughly two years later, NYSED records show, similar allegations were made by “several additional complainants” which resulted in Smith’s resignation from the district on April 23, 1979. It’s unclear whether Smith continued his alleged abuse in the 14 years between leaving Phoenix and losing his state teaching certification.

(1) comment

Nell

Their lawyers' website says that there are 3 teachers involved. What is the name of the third teacher?

"In the 1970s, a child sex abuse ring was operating at the Phoenix Central School district outside of Syracuse, New York. During that time, three teachers – including James Middaugh and Ronald Smith – actively and openly preyed upon seventh and eighth grade girls at Emerson J. Dillon Middle School, and ninth grade girls at John C. Birdlebough High School."

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