Noted educator Mel Levine accused of sexual abuse | In 2005, school district hired Levine for workshops alternative learning methods

Educational advocate and pediatrician Dr. Melvin Levine, whose expertise on teaching the “struggling student” has earned him national repute, is standing trial for accusations of sexually abusing five former patients when they were boys. The charges, although months-old, were brought to the national spotlight in a New York Times front-page story on Aug. 6. Levine has denied all accusations.

Mercer Island School District Superintendent Gary Plano said that he was disturbed by the news, yet withheld further judgement.

“The accusations against Dr. Levine are extremely serious as they constitute child abuse. However, an accused person is presumed innocent, so at this time I have no other comment except to say I am disturbed by these allegations,” he said.

A graduate and professor of Harvard Medical School, Levine’s work has stirred much of the nation’s approach to education. In 1995, Levine co-founded the All Kinds of Minds Institute, a nonprofit group that touts his methods through teacher training workshops. Mercer Island is one of dozens of school districts across the country to have hosted Levine through the All Kinds of Minds program.

The idea to invite Dr. Levine to speak on Mercer Island was initially suggested by a parent/teacher group at Lakeridge Elementary. Levine had spoken at the University of Washington in 2004, and several Island teachers had attended the seminar. Following his UW speech, the Lakeridge group, calling itself the Mel Levine Committee, discussed bringing Levine to the Island.

“‘All Kinds of Minds was really kicked off after Dr. Levine spoke at the UW. An awful lot of staff attended. This spurred interest and caused enthusiasm,” said Lakeridge Principal Ralph Allen, a leader of the Mel Levine Committee.

In March 2005, the committee organized a districtwide All Kinds of Minds workshop, featuring Levine as a keynote speaker. By that time, Island teachers were well versed in Levine’s theories. More than 238 copies of his books, including “A Mind at a Time” and “The Myth of Laziness” were being circulated among faculty members.

Teachers were given a paid day-off to attend the March 15 workshop, which focused on child development and learning from a neurological perspective. Both the Mercer Island School Board and the Washington State Teachers Association approved the waiver. Levine delivered a separate speech to parents and members of the community.

The cost of Levine’s Island visit, which was funded entirely by members of the community, totaled about $10,000. Ticket prices — $10 per person — contributed to the sum.

Since Levine’s 2005 visit, the district has adopted many of his approaches to teaching through the Schools Attuned program. Following the All Kinds of Minds model, educators are more open to students with unique learning requirements. Individuality within the classroom is nurtured. Teachers are encouraged to understand student behavior patterns and accommodate special needs.

“It’s affected the way we look at kids with different learning abilities in school. We focus on strengths. It’s really not a curriculum; it’s a way of thinking,” Allen said of Levine’s approach.

The principal added that he was aware of the allegations against Levine and had been “following the issue closely.” He first heard of the reports a year after the Mel Levine Committee was started, he said.

“We immediately sought clarification and got a statement from All Kinds of Minds, saying this came out of his earlier years as a pediatrician,” Allen said.

The allegations against Levine, which had not been substantiated at the time, did not discourage Allen and the committee from continuing to support the All Kinds of Minds model.

“It’s not him we’re focusing on; it’s the constructs that All Kinds of Minds teaches, which is brain functioning and finding kids’ strengths and using those to leverage against their weaknesses,” Allen said.

Reading the latest coverage on Levine’s past has not changed Allen’s opinion.

“His work stands alone,” he said. “We exclusively work with All Kinds of Minds.”

School Boardmember Janet Frohnmayer, a co-founder of the now defunct Mel Levine Committee, said she was not aware of the allegations when Levine spoke on Mercer Island in 2005.

“These things are so sad,” she said, in response to the New York Times story.

The recent accusations against Levine pose a difficult ethical situation for educators supporting his ideas. Frohnmayer, like Allen, separates Levine from his academic methods. Yet she still has to give much thought and careful consideration to the news, the Boardmember said.

“First of all, he hasn’t been to trial. It’s possible he’s not guilty,” she said. “But also, I think he’s made an enormous contribution to thinking about how kids learn and has helped teachers tremendously.”

Levine, 68, began his work with children in the 1970s, focusing on youth with learning disabilities. He earned millions of dollars in grants for his revolutionary approach, which was featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and a PBS multi-series called “Misunderstood Minds.” It was not long before Levine was traveling across the country, speaking at education conferences and All Kinds of Minds workshops.

Yet rumors of his past conduct with young patients followed the doctor.

Last March, Carmen L. Durso, a lawyer in Massachusetts who had sued the Archdiocese of Boston for sexual abuse by priests, held a press conference accusing Levine of sexually abusing five former patients when they were boys, according to the New York Times article. Most of the incidents took place between 1967 and 1985. The first lawsuit, however, was filed in 2005. There are currently no criminal charges against Levine.

The five men who filed the lawsuits did not know each other, according to the New York Times, but had similar stories: they were asked to strip naked during the doctor’s physical examinations — part of Levine’s overall assessment — and were inappropriately touched. Patients were ages 5 to 13 when the alleged abuse took place.

Levine voluntarily gave up his license in April to practice while being investigated by the North Carolina Medical Board. The lawsuit against Levine may take years to litigate. He is currently denying all charges.

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