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Members of the Albany Middle School community gather at a memorial to James Izumizaki before the start of class in Albany on Tuesday. Izumizaki, a teacher at the school, was found dead Monday of a presumed suicide.

ALBANY -- When Marlon Short's daughter returned from volleyball practice Monday night, her dad sat her down in the living room and broke the news to her: "Mr. I," her longtime basketball coach and favorite middle school teacher, had killed himself.

"She was physically shaking," Short said of his daughter, now a St. Mary's High School junior.

The week before, the 35-year-old Albany father had told her of Albany Middle School teacher James Izumizaki's arrest, on suspicion of committing a lewd act on a girl younger than 14.

"These last two weeks have been crazy," Short said Thursday, shaking his head while standing outside the middle school on his way to a parents-only meeting on how to help their children cope with the multilayered tragedy.

This small East Bay community, where families move for good schools and a small-town feel, has been torn apart by the revelations.

Many residents supported Izumizaki, who grew up in Albany before returning to teach at his former middle school, believing the immensely popular teacher and coach could never commit such a crime.

Others are shocked that parents would support a molestation suspect, particularly while his young accuser already copes with guilt for coming forward.

The disparate viewpoints have played out with passionate conversations in homes, in meetings and on the town's hyperlocal news website, Patch, leading an editor to post a blog explaining why the story was even being covered at all.


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Experts say taking sides is all too common in these types of cases, which can tear at the fiber of communities.

'Very common'

Shortly after the 28-year-old Izumizaki was found dead in his car in San Lorenzo, some in the community began blaming school administrators, police, media and even the victim for his suicide. He left a note, but its contents have not been made public.

"Imagine you are the best at something. You are the best at this not just because it comes natural to you, but because you pour your heart and soul into it every day," an Albany Patch commenter going by "Susan" wrote Tuesday. (Patch readers are not required to use their real names when commenting.)

"You find that your work, dedication, and passion are now only met with suspicion, and that the first instinct of your supervisors is to protect not the accusers, not the accused, but only their own careers. No, neither (Superintendent Marla) Stephenson, nor the police, nor any other individual took Mr. I's life, but they very well backed him out onto the ledge," the commenter wrote.

Another blog poster going by "Colleen O'Neill" wrote this, hours after Izumizaki's body was found: "If this man was innocent this community has done something akin to the Salem Witch Trials."

A candlelight vigil was held Tuesday night in front of the school, with grieving children and parents leaving condolence notes, flowers and candles. That display of respect struck some as unseemly and triggered more debate about the appropriate response to what had unfolded.

"People need to stop defending this guy. If it was a less charismatic teacher the community would be calling this guy a monster," "John Lewis" wrote on Patch. Others asked what the girl who reported Izumizaki must be thinking, seeing the outpouring of support for the teacher.

Amid the community controversy, police have clarified that more than one girl came forward with sex abuse allegations.

These conflicting, confusing reactions to such allegations are "very common" because perpetrators often groom not just victims but entire communities, according to Terri Miller, of Las Vegas, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation.

"Oftentimes they are award-winning teachers or very popular teachers and that's how they mask the demon inside," Miller said. "The community doesn't know that side of him; only the victims have seen that side of perpetrators."

It's important not to blame the victim in these cases and reserve judgment, she said.

"People just need to be cognizant that there is a child out there suffering," she said. "This is so horribly traumatic for the victims to see this kind of response and to see this adulation of the teacher."

Such community reaction could prevent victims from coming forward in the future, she said.

Dr. Glenn Lipson, a Southern California forensic psychologist who consults on sexual misconduct issues, said the treatment of victims can be ruthless.

"They torment them. They write on their backpacks, call them names. ... It's very difficult for kids to come forward," he said.

Other Albany cases

This is not Albany's first experience with sex abuse charges.

In 2007, a former student told Albany school officials that science teacher Kay Sorg molested her from 1990 to 1991 while she was in high school. Sorg was charged with two felony counts of oral copulation of a person younger than 16 and two counts of sexual penetration with a foreign object. A fifth count of a lewd act upon a child was dropped.

The next year, Alameda County prosecutors dropped criminal charges against Sorg in exchange for her admitting to the relationship, resigning from the Albany school district and agreeing to permanently surrender her teaching credential. The deal came because the victim did not want to testify after being "villainized in the community", deputy district attorney Danielle Hilton told the Contra Costa Times at the time. Shortly after Sorg's arrest, a youth sports coach at Albany High School was arrested and charged with four felony counts of sexual assault on boys dating to 1988. Jon Etingoff, the popular volunteer wrestling team volunteer, was convicted on three counts in April 2010 and sentenced to more than 10 years in state prison.

Moraga similarities

Residents of the Central Contra Costa community of Moraga are painfully aware of how Albany families are feeling.

In 1996, popular middle school science teacher Daniel Witters was placed on administrative leave after a handful of girls came forward with accusations of inappropriate behavior. He killed himself days later, polarizing the community.

"I think the school fell down in that they didn't support this man who was facing a future that led him to drive off a cliff," a parent said at the time.

A school psychologist told parents in a meeting that some students were taking out their grief on the accusers.

"I think (the accusers) are feeling torn because they're getting from other kids: 'He did this thing and if you hadn't said this, he wouldn't have gone off the cliff.' ... All of a sudden, they're alone. And what's going to happen?" a parent asked.

Dan Halem, the reporter covering the Witters aftermath for the Contra Costa Sun newspaper, wrote an opinion piece defending the coverage. Last week, an Albany Patch editor similarly wrote a blog post explaining to readers why they covered the arrest and suicide of Izumizaki.

One difference between the two cases is the Moraga police chief at the time decided not to continue investigating the case because Witters had killed himself. That's a decision, Miller said, that can exacerbate rumor-mongering and prolong a community's search for closure. In the recent case, Albany Chief Mike McQuiston, in an effort to be transparent, wrote a three-page letter to the community detailing the investigation, including the revelation that they had talked with multiple victims whose stories were substantiated by additional evidence. The department plans to continue its investigation.

"The case has clearly left people hurt and confused by this tragic turn of events," he wrote. "The arrest of a popular educator and community member raises troubling questions, and his suicide leaves many questions unanswered."

As a BART train squealed by on the elevated tracks next to Albany Middle School on Thursday, Short said he hoped the Izumizaki case would provide an opportunity for frank discussion about child abuse.

"It's appropriate now with the times and Penn State just happened," the father said. "It's out there, but now closer to home and we need to take it seriously."

Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.