Catholic school vows changes in wake of report of teacher-student sex. 'I didn't know how to get help or that I even needed help,' Ariana Garay says.

COURTESY PHOTO - Ariana Garay (left) and Francesca Cronan during a 2011 spring break trip to Italy. Garay alleges that she had a sexual relationship with Cronan, her sophomore English teacher, after she turned 16. Cronan says it was never more than imaginary role play designed to placate Garay. In the wake of publicizing her story of being sexually exploited by her then-teacher when she was a teenager, Ariana Garay said she has been pleasantly surprised by the response from former classmates and others.

"So many people are sending me messages. I'm in tears," Garay wrote to the Tribune, adding: "The messages I've received from current students, graduates, and friends in my circle from college and beyond has been overwhelming. I've received so many kind words, so many individuals sharing their own stories. I spent so long carrying this story alone and knowing that there are so many people, women AND men, who are reaching out to me with kindness and support has completely touched me."

A package of articles released by the Portland Tribune Thursday, April 5, detailed allegations against Francesca Cronan, who resigned her position as an English teacher at St. Mary's Academy June 15. She was put on paid leave at the school in January 2017, following revelations from the state Teacher Standards and Practices Commission that they would pursue revocation of her license in light of Garay's allegations.

Garay provided the state investigation with texts, emails and other messages — including some that appeared to explicitly discuss having sex — that were exchanged with the teacher, beginning when she was still in high school.

St. Mary's Academy leadership was not aware of the details of the state report until contacted by the Tribune. Since the newspaper's contact and since publication of the story, the private Catholic high school has responded with a letter to current parents and, subsequently, alumnae from 2007-2017, the years Cronan taught at the school.

"I think that response on their part was a very good move, and to me it shows that they're stepping up and addressing it," said Melissa Wong, a friend of Garay's who was quoted in the story.

St. Mary's vows changes

COURTESY PHOTO - St. Mary's Academy Principal Nicole Foran (left) and President Christina Friedhoff. In a Wednesday interview prior to the release of the articles, St. Mary's officials said they wanted to use the experience to improve their reporting processes and complaint tracking.

Just last week, the school contracted with NAVEX, a software system that helps large entities track complaints of illegal issues or other concerns.

The school also detailed several other recent initiatives, though many took place before they had requested and received a full copy of the state report in this case. Those included Green Dot Bystander Intervention training — a way for witnesses to potential sexual assault to effectively intervene — and a new technology for tracking messages between coaches, teachers and students.

"We want to be leaders in everything that we do," said Principal Nicole Foran, who was part of the initial report of the claim of a sexual relationship to the Department of Human Services in 2016. "We want to learn from this experience and say: 'How can we improve?'"

Foran did not specifically say what she had learned from the situation, nor what she regretted.

"Anytime a student isn't thriving or is hurt, that's tough," Foran said. "Yeah, of course, (I have regrets)."

She also declined to answer a question about the religious school's current stance on homosexuality: "That's a complex issue and I think it's separate from what we're discussing."

St. Mary's Academy President Christina Friedhoff said repeatedly that she hoped the school could use the opportunity to empower women and girls to come forward sooner with concerns.

"We are called to continue to carry this mission forward to benefit women. And the needs of women have changed," Friedhoff said. "We will commit to making the change necessary. We demonstrated by our history that we are committed to that."

Foran was a close colleague with Cronan in the St. Mary's Academy English Department. She in 2014 heard from her daughter that Garay was publicly alleging an inappropriate relationship at University of Oregon, where both attended, but did not notify authorities until she received a firsthand account from a fellow classmate in 2016.

Garay says she feels the "red flags" of a relationship many people saw as strangely close were discounted because her alleged abuser was female and she herself was openly homosexual.

"...many times, when the world references a gay individual or gay couple, they are automatically assumed to be more sexually promiscuous, advanced, etc." Garay wrote to the Tribune. "I've also heard a lot of discussion about focusing on teaching consent. I knew what consent was. I didn't know what emotional manipulation was. What it was like to be groomed by an adult. I didn't know the signs of that — and because I didn't, I didn't know how to get help or that I even needed help."

Teacher denies allegations

Cronan has repeatedly denied that sex with a minor ever occurred, attacking Garay's mental stability. She has not been formally charged by police or prosecutors and Garay says she has no plans to ask Portland Police to launch a formal investigation.

Cronan has maintained for years that she simply had a close friendship with Garay. In recent years, as allegations became more specific, she said Garay was inventing a physical component as a form of emotional blackmail. Cronan said she went along with her overtures by play-acting, she said, to prevent their inappropriately friendly relationship from being exposed.

Cronan's husband, Aaron Cronan, also had ties with the school until he quit coaching its mock trial team. St. Mary's confirmed he coached the team for two hours after school on Mondays and Wednesdays, from October to March from 2009-12. Garay said her sexual encounters with his wife occurred between May 2009 and June 2011, usually after school at the Cronans' residence. Aaron Cronan has stated this was impossible as he was working from home during that period.

Garay said she is not looking for media attention or accolades for her story.

"People have told me I'm brave and a hero to them and I don't feel like I'm any of those things," Garay wrote. "I'm just relieved that I don't have to live with this secret anymore. But if I can help other women come forward about their experiences, especially young LGBTQ individuals who so often feel overlooked, or lack representation in so many of these cultural moments, then I've done the right thing."

Shasta Kearns Moore
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