Two Chappaqua moms are on the phone, comparing their children. One mother’s son has gotten a 99 percent on his final exam at Harvard, while Susan’s kid got a 100 percent. “I guess my son is just one point smarter,” Susan smirks. In retaliation, the other mother then breaks the news about Susan’s younger children: “This must be so hard to hear,” she says, feigning sympathy, “but I got word of Natalie and Jason drinking and drugging!”
The audience laughs as Susan — played by a high-school student with long brown hair — desperately tries to deny that anything could be wrong with her “little paninis.” She hangs up the phone, near hysterics, while her husband, played by Horace Greeley High School theater teacher Christopher Schraufnagel, 42, lies facedown on the stage, eating a muffin off the floor to console himself. His wife drags him back on the couch and forces him to spit out the piece of muffin, which she then pops into her own mouth, prompting groans from the crowd.
This was just the kind of artistic liberty that Schraufnagel was known for encouraging in his students, allowing them to write a play satirizing their own parents and tweaking the culture of an elite high school obsessed with test scores and status. “I don’t do high-school shows,” Schraufnagel often told his students. “I do professional productions with young actors.” Unlike other teachers at Greeley, he came to class dressed in flannel shirts, Converse sneakers, and jeans. His hair was usually bleached, sometimes dyed, long on the top, clipped short underneath. The kids called him Schrauf, which is how he signed his missives announcing casting calls, rehearsal times, and show notes. You never knew when he’d launch into one of his foul-mouthed, funny stories. “He always treated us like adults in every way. He didn’t take shit from us at any rehearsal, he never spoke to us like kids,” says former Greeley student Alex Martinez, now 20. “I really don’t think he thought of us like kids.”
According to a number of current and former students, Schraufnagel treated them like adults in conversations about sex and relationships as well. When he was a freshman, a student I’ll call Jon (due to the age of the students involved, the Cut agreed not to identify those who requested their names be kept private) remembers sitting in Schraufnagel’s office with another theater friend. Jon is gay, and they were rating other boys’ looks from one to ten. Then Schrauf chimed in: “I’d give you guys an eight and a seven,” he said, according to Jon. Another time, he says that Schraufnagel looked at his shorts and joked: “I want them shorter!”
Jon, now a junior at Greeley, felt a little weird about his teacher’s remarks. But at the time, he didn’t think much of it. The theater kids all talked about their personal lives with each other in Schraufnagel’s office — affectionately dubbed “the Schrauffice” — in class, and at rehearsal. Most theater students wouldn’t go to the health teacher with questions about sex, says Martinez, they’d go to Schraufnagel. The fact that their teacher commented on students’ looks and expressed his preference for “tall, kind of lanky” guys — as Jon and another classmate remember it — didn’t strike them as particularly out of place. “I don’t think anyone considered him to be a high-school teacher,” says another student. “He was just one of us.”
In June 2015, a former student and protégé of Schraufnagel’s whom I’ll call Matthew came back to Greeley to help with the preparations for “Springfest,” the school’s annual festival of student-written and -directed plays. Though he was already in college, Matthew would come back to work on productions with Schraufnagel. But this time, there seemed to be a lot of tension between the two. While they were finishing up the sets for Springfest a few days before opening night, Schraufnagel and Matthew got into a full-blown yelling match in front of the other students. By the time the curtain went up, Schraufnagel was clearly out of sorts: He was acting in two of the student productions, including the play about Chappaqua moms, but he didn’t know his lines and kept missing his cues. Backstage, shocked and teary students tried to hold it together to get through the plays. Matthew had told them earlier that he’d been sexually involved with Schraufnagel while underage, students say, and that he was going to the police.
The next day, Schraufnagel didn’t come back to Greeley. The next week, the school placed him on paid leave and exempted his students from their final exams. All summer, rumors flew around Chappaqua about what had happened between Schraufnagel, Matthew (who declined to comment), and other theater students. That fall, Schraufnagel was charged with a felony for a third-degree criminal sex act, plus six misdemeanor offenses, including four counts of third-degree sex abuse of underage students at Greeley. Prosecutors have identified three of his former students as victims, including Matthew.
Six former students are now trying to move forward with lawsuits against Schraufnagel and the Chappaqua school district for damages stemming from what they claim was sexual, physical, or emotional abuse; only one of them is also part of the criminal case. In New York State, a Notice of Claim must be filed within 90 days of an incident to move forward with a lawsuit against government or public entities like the Chappaqua Central School District, a stringent requirement that is being appealed by three of the six families. (This didn’t apply in the case of the private Horace Mann School in the Bronx, which recently settled claims with nearly 30 former students alleging sexual abuse by teachers, mostly in the 1970s.)
The criminal accusations stretch back to 2011, when the teacher allegedly had oral sex with a then-15-year-old student. The most recent criminal charges are dated between October 2014 and June 5, 2015 — just six days before Schraufnagel’s final night onstage at Greeley; according to prosecutors, the teacher allegedly had “sexual contact” and “inappropriate conversations with strong sexual overtones” with another underage student. Prosecutors also accuse Schraufnagel of “endangering the welfare of a child” by asking a third student to kiss male and female students while he took photographs. I spoke with one of the students involved in the civil suit and three parents who are suing the school district, as well as nearly a dozen current and former students. Schraufnagel’s lawyer Stacey Richman, the Chappaqua Central School District, and the Westchester County District Attorney’s office all declined to comment on the specific allegations, citing the ongoing litigation.
Shortly before Schraufnagel was scheduled to appear in Chappaqua town court this August, I sat down with another former student at a nearby coffee shop; I’ll call him Robert. He isn’t one of the three students from the criminal case, but he spent more time with Schraufnagel than nearly anyone else at Greeley and is now prosecutors’ lead witness in the criminal case, he says. During his three years in the theater program with Schraufnagel, Robert estimates that he was at the theater about 50 hours a week, during which time he saw several instances of what he now describes as “grossly inappropriate” sexually charged behavior by his teacher. Though he was never abused himself, Robert now believes that Schraufnagel likely had designs on him, too. “Had I known to look out for the kind of comments he was directing at me, I think I would have picked up on the fact that I was indeed at risk of falling victim to his scheme,” he says.
Robert, now 18 and in college, still lights up when he talks about the artistic triumphs of Greeley’s theater program; he particularly loved Little Shop of Horrors, whose talking Venus flytraps were done up in glorious Technicolor. But since last year’s Springfest, he’s been reconsidering his experience. “Was all my work just for nothing?” asks Robert. “Was it for the good part of it — for the good of the theater? Or was I part of his system?”
The stories started multiplying after Springfest: One student told Robert that he and Schraufnagel had kissed in the old green room. Matthew reached out to other theater kids to offer his support: “If you need to talk about anything that you feel like you can’t tell to anyone else,” he wrote Jon in a private Facebook message, “give me a call because fuck all of that.”
Meanwhile, on the Chappaqua Moms Facebook group — which has more than 6,800 members — speculation about Schraufnagel and his alleged victims grew so rampant that the group’s moderator deleted entire discussion threads and banned the topic altogether. Parents found other ways to express their anger. “I TOLD YOU MANY TIMES SOMETHING WAS NOT RIGHT ABOUT THE MAN BUT YOU AS AN ADMINSTRATOR [sic] FAILED TO PROTECT THESE CHILDREN,” Sandra Nohavicka, a local parent, wrote to Greeley principal Robert Rhodes after Schraufnagel was arrested. (She shared the email with the Cut.)
“There were classic signs that should have been detected and may have been detected by the school,” says attorney David Engelsher, who is representing four of the civil claimants, none of whom are part of the criminal case. According to their complaints, Schraufnagel allegedly touched three boys on the buttocks, inner thighs, and/or genitals while they were students, among other offenses. Court documents also claim that the teacher also asked one of the boys for oral sex, requested photos of genitals, sent sexually explicit messages, and gave them access to drugs and/or alcohol. Another complaint claims that Schraufnagel bullied a student and made “sexually explicit and otherwise improper remarks,” though it doesn’t allege sexual contact. (When police searched the high school for evidence in August 2015, officers confiscated two boxes of empty liquor bottles, “two vodka bottles partially full,” and mysteriously, an alligator head with a sock stuffed in its mouth, according to police records that the Cut obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.)
The Chappaqua school district has spent the past year in a defensive crouch. On June 16, 2015, five days after Schraufnagel left the school, a school administrator told one mother that they “believed my son was a victim of Mr. Schraufnagel’s molestations,” according to court documents. The same day, according to documents first obtained by The Journal News, a local newspaper, school officials were already in talks with Marathon Strategies, a prominent NYC-based public-relations firm, at the behest of the school district’s lawyers.
Marathon’s fee would be $15,500 per month for an initial three months of media relations, message development, social-media monitoring, and “tough questions,” among other services outlined in a proposal, which the Cut obtained through a FOIL request. Marathon has worked intermittently for the school district since then. When I contacted the school for comment, a Marathon employee responded on its behalf, saying that it was unable to comment on any specific allegations given the legal action against the district.
The school actively discouraged students from speaking incautiously to the media — or even to friends — about the matter. In a September 2015 email to families, Rhodes warned against responding to outside queries: “My biggest concern is that this may be directed at you in an effort to get an insight, quote, or a story.”
“There is a very big effort to keep it under wraps as much as possible,” says Robert. “It’s like, ‘This is Chappaqua, nothing goes wrong here. This is a nice town, we all pay God knows how much in taxes to go to the No. 1 high school in the country. If anything were to come out — oh God.’”
Indeed, when asked about the Schraufnagel case at a town forum, town supervisor Rob Greenstein said, “The schools are our biggest industry — whether you have kids in the school or not, that’s what maintains our property values.” Other local leaders worried that the scandal would hurt fundraising for the Chappaqua School Foundation, which raises money for school programs beyond the district’s property tax revenue. Margaret Macchetto, a member of the foundation’s board, asked the district to scrub Schraufnagel’s classes from the school’s website, pointing out one page that was signed “with love, Schrauf,” according to an August 2015 email obtained by the Cut through a FOIL request. “When and if an arrest is made, if the media have a field day, it will be very difficult for CSF to make a pitch for fundraising while that distraction is going on,” Macchetto wrote. “The more we can limit it, the better.”
For all the upset regarding Schraufnagel, the school district’s response to the lawsuits has possibly inspired even more outrage. This July, attorneys for the Chappaqua Central School District claimed that any harm students may have experienced was caused or contributed to by “the carelessness, recklessness, [and] negligence” of Schraufnagel or the students themselves. In August, the district added another barb to its defense, arguing that the names of the parents suing the school district should be revealed “to diminish the possibilities of injury, incompetence, perjury and fraud,” according to court papers filed by Brian Henderson, an attorney for the school district. “Privacy is a limited right.”
Even members of the school board have expressed consternation about this legal strategy. “I do not believe children should ever be held responsible in cases of criminal sexual abuse,” said school board vice-president Victoria Tipp at a recent meeting. She added that Marathon Strategies was hired “without the knowledge of board members.” The local media seized on the school district’s response as an attempt to blame the victims — The Journal News called its defense “nauseating.”
“What they did was protect their brand at all costs,” says Cortney Miller, a social worker who ran a support group for Greeley parents in the wake of the Schraufnagel case. “They came out swinging at a bunch of 15-year-old kids.”
On the campus of Horace Greeley High School, sprawling sports fields lead up to a cluster of low-slung, 1970s-style brick buildings. The prep-school vibe is strong: Students wear Vineyard Vines shirts, North Face vests, and Lululemon leggings, according to the trend-spotting page of a recent Greeley yearbook.
For students who felt like the affluent suburb was a straightjacket — the artsy kids, the closeted teens, the aspiring thespians — the Schrauffice was a small oasis. Schraufnagel’s office was just behind the stage, in a building on the edge of campus devoted to the performing arts, and the door was always open: Students were in there at all hours of the day, having lunch, gossiping, doing their homework, or just shooting the breeze with their favorite teacher. Schraufnagel would often talk about the plays that he loved (the revival of August: Osage County, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) or the ones that he hated (Wicked). But the conversations would just as frequently turn to their own lives, and Schraufnagel’s.
Schraufnagel was one of a few openly gay teachers at Greeley, and he commuted to school every day from Manhattan, where he lived in Inwood with his husband, his three dogs, and two cats. He graduated from Rutgers and got a master’s in educational theater from New York University. Before coming to Greeley in 2003, he taught at Chatham High School in New Jersey. But he also worked as a professional actor, appearing in productions at the Lincoln Center's Directors Lab, the State Theatre of New Jersey, and a New York International Fringe Festival musical about “the treacherous world of sex, drugs, and New York children's theatre.”
Schraufnagel gravitated toward dark humor when it came to theater — “he loved Brechtian shit,” as one student puts it — and he let loose in his creative side projects as well. Students loved hearing about his band, Spaztikolon, a self-described jazz-hip-hop-ska-funk-punk-rock fusion group; he performed as a singer whose alter ego was named “Megger.” “Feared across the nation for his ability to drain bottles of Maker's Mark (a.k.a. "Chris Killer"), Megger leaves nothing in his trail but soothed ears, outraged parents, and a used box of hair-dye,” the band’s website proclaimed.
When he directed the 2015 senior-class musical, Hair, he put the students in bodysuits for its infamous nude scene. “Whether we’re ready to talk about it or not, they’re experimenting sexually, they’re experimenting with drugs, that’s what teenagers do,” he told a reporter at the time, defending the students’ decision to put up the show. “Let’s do it as art and open a dialogue about it, instead of sweeping it under the rug, like, ‘No, that doesn’t happen in our town.’”
While he lived for pushing social norms and artistic boundaries, he was also a perfectionist. When he cast a production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros with the genders reversed, he exhorted his students to take their roles seriously. “Just because your genders are reversed, I don't want this to turn into a three hour Monty Python-esque sketch,” he told them in a 2009 missive. “I’m expecting no less than brilliance (since your primary function as artists is to serve the text ... and the text is brilliant).”
Rehearsals could stretch well past 11 p.m., and Schrauf didn’t seem to care if parents who came early to pick up their kids were stuck waiting in the parking lot. The closer it was to showtime, the more likely he was to lose his temper. “He would scream and yell a lot,” remembers one theater professional hired to work on the student shows. If a kid didn’t know his or her lines, he added, Schraufnagel might snap: “Fucking learn your lines.”
The students who grew closest to Schraufnagel were part of a select group called Theater Repertory, made up of about 18 to 20 kids chosen by the teacher and other Theater Rep students. Theater Rep staged his most artistically ambitious productions: Molière, Brecht, Commedia dell’arte. “The work covered in this class can only be done by individuals who are focused and willing to take extreme risks on stage,” read one description of the program.
He hired outside professionals to help with choreography, set design, and lighting; his husband did students’ hair and makeup. While kids in the next town over were putting up Bye Bye Birdie, Schraufnagel’s students were acting in Les Liaisons Dangereuses; actors wore elaborate period dress, and an artificial snow machine rained down on the climactic duel. For Greeley’s production of Antigone, Schraufnagel wanted the set and costumes to all be in grayscale until the bloody finale. “I want the walls to rain blood,” he explained. So he had them set up a bucket of red paint that tipped over a large white wall, which they had to repaint every night of the show.
Just being chosen for Theater Rep felt like an accomplishment: The alumni have been accepted into Juilliard, NYU’s Tisch School, and other prestigious performing-arts programs, with some moving on to professional careers as Broadway actors, screenwriters, and Hollywood agents. Theater Rep students would regularly take trips to see shows with their teacher in NYC; Schraufnagel especially loved Sleep No More, a participatory version of Macbeth in which audience members wear Venetian-style white masks. Most exciting was a biennial weeklong trip with Schraufnagel to Europe. Kids took advantage of the lower drinking age at dinner, and Schraufnagel even went on a bar crawl in Italy one night with the group, says Robert. (Parents footed the bill for the trips, which were not official school activities.)
The bonding was intense. The daily Theater Rep class would often start with a pow-wow for students to share how they were doing, how they were feeling, and what was going on in their world. “One or two classes, we spent the whole time talking about our lives,” recalls one Greeley alum who’s now a writer. “In this academic pressure-cooker town — where we were rewarded for being some aspirational version of ourselves, or some elevated G.P.A. with a heartbeat — it was safe to be weird.”
Theater Rep had other traditions, too: Before the start of rehearsal, they’d play a game called “Train Wreck” — essentially a version of “Never Have I Ever” crossed with musical chairs, in which one student suggests “Never have I ever” done something, and anyone who has done that something has to sit down in another chair. (“Never have I ever hooked up in the band room” was one popular prompt, students say.) A representative for Schraufnagel says that when students pushed the boundaries on games like Train Wreck, the teacher would “put a stop to it.”
Most infamous, however, was the class’s annual Secret Santa, where students had to give each other gifts without spending any money, a requirement that sometimes spawned gross-out presents like feces in a cup, says Robert. The gift exchange was primarily for students, but one year Schraufnagel had an idea of his own for a shy, quiet junior in Theater Rep, according to Robert: They would take photos of a freshman classmate kissing every kid in the class; the last photo would be the freshman kissing the older student’s purported love interest. At the time, Robert thought it was a funny idea, and says that Schraufnagel offered to pay him $20 to turn the photos into a slideshow. Everyone in the class burst out laughing when Schraufnagel’s gift was unveiled, Robert says — except for its recipient. “He was visibly upset,” remembers Robert. “He wasn’t laughing at all.”
But it didn’t occur to Robert, or any of his friends, to say anything to any other adults at the time: What happened in Theater Rep stayed in Theater Rep. “People don’t understand. We weren’t forced to be in some kind of system,” Robert says. It was a place where kids who felt like they were outsiders could feel like they were on the inside, where they knew confidences would be kept, and where being different felt normal. “It was nice to have a place to go, you knew no one was going to say anything,” he says. “They know they’re in a safe space.”
That was especially true for the LGBT kids who got to know Schraufnagel. Maile Hamilton, a 2010 graduate, came out her junior year of high school, and her theater teacher was one of the first people she told. “I don’t think I would have come out in high school if it wasn’t for Schrauf,” she says. By the next year, Hamilton was spending close to 12 hours a day with Schraufnagel, between class, rehearsal, and producing the senior class musical. One 2012 graduate also saw Schraufnagel as a mentor and confidante. “I couldn’t go to the cafeteria,” he says, explaining that other students bullied him for being gay. “I had no one else to talk to — he was almost like a therapist.”
Schraufnagel talked about himself as well. “If we were talking about partying or sex, he would play along. It’s really our fault — this is the stuff that kids talk about,” says the 2012 graduate, remembering tales of Schraufnagel taking ecstasy in his early 20s. The student remembers the message being that ecstasy “was really bad and dangerous and would ruin your life.” (Robert recalls another Schraufnagel story about a bad acid trip.) But part of earning students’ trust, some believe, was not reporting them when they crossed a line. “I showed up to one of his NYC trips intoxicated, and he didn’t call my parents,” the 2012 graduate says. “It wasn’t appropriate in retrospect, but I don’t know.” (A representative for Schraufnagel says that the teacher did not make sexually suggestive comments to students, discuss his marriage or sex life with them, or facilitate drug or alcohol consumption; any discussion of drugs “were cautionary tales,” the representative adds.)
If parents complained, it was mostly because Schraufnagel was keeping them at a distance. They weren’t allowed to watch rehearsals, and he didn’t have much patience with parents who were unhappy with the long hours or roles their children failed to earn. “He was very curt,” says Susan Chatzky, Hamilton’s mother. “Some parents he thought were crazy — he completely and totally dismissed them.” Chatzky ultimately saw Schraufnagel as a positive influence on her daughter, in part because of his blunt style. One time, after she was cast in the title role for Antigone, Hamilton was feeling self-conscious about her weight. Schraufnagel joked that the costume budget should “factor in a tapeworm,” prompting Hamilton to tell him to “go fuck himself,” which they all laughed about later, Chatzky recalls. “He taught her not to be afraid of her own opinion.”
But Schraufnagel’s teaching style left Sandra Nohavicka seething. In early 2015, when her son was a freshman, his teacher asked him to come build sets on a Sunday night, even though school had been canceled the next day because of an impending snowstorm. Around 11:30 p.m., Nohavicka barged into the theater. “I’m picking you up right now!” she shouted. She later emailed Schraufnagel to complain. “My son loves participating in this program, but please, you are giving me a heart attack if you expect me to go out in this weather,” she wrote. “He would be extremely upset if he even knew I sent you this email.” Schraufnagel later told her son: “I don’t blame kids for crazy parents,” she says. When Nohavicka heard this, she called Rhodes, enraged. “How dare he try to split between me and my child? This is indoctrination,” she told the principal. “I am the parent, he is not.” Rhodes said that he would speak to Schraufnagel, according to the mother, but she didn’t hear anything further on the matter, and let it go after that. (The school declined to comment.)
Another mother, who requested anonymity, got to know Schraufnagel better than most. She was helping out with the senior-class musical, and the teacher’s artistic ambitions for his students impressed her. She was particularly excited about their plan to perform a musical version of Heathers, the classic Gen-X movie about teen suicide; Greeley would have been the first high school in the country to do the show, which ends with Christian Slater’s character blowing himself up with a bomb outside the school.
But in the early months of 2015, the mother came to believe that Schraufnagel was encouraging students to experiment with drugs, based on her conversations with theater kids and parents. “He encouraged his students to experience things so they could use it onstage,” she says. She was concerned, particularly as she had heard a student in his class was struggling with drug addiction.
The mother says she told Andrew Corsilia, then assistant principal at Greeley, about the discussion of drugs, saying that she wanted Schraufnagel to get help; he had been looking exhausted and burned-out, she said. “This is what I’m hearing, I think this guy needs to take a sabbatical — I think that he is having a breakdown,” she told him.
She says Corsilia got back to her, telling her “I went to the classroom — nothing was going on,” according to the mother. When she expressed dismay, she says, Corsilia asked what she wanted him to do. “I don’t know,” she replied. “But you need to figure something out.” The school didn’t take any further action, as far as the mother knew. (School officials declined to comment.)
In retrospect, the mother wonders why she and other parents never conferred with each other about the strange stories they heard about Schraufnagel. She guesses that many had the same experience she did: Their kids didn’t want them going to the administration and calling out a beloved teacher.
One 2013 grad who wasn’t involved in theater said students heard rumors about nude photos, drugs, and other suspicious activity surrounding the program, but he didn’t think much of it at the time. “It was the theater group — they were their own free birds,” says the former student, now 21. “Nobody complained, because the kids wanted to be involved, as far as we knew.” Meanwhile, parents, school officials, and everyone else seemed pleased with the end product: remarkably high-level shows produced by kids who could be headed to Broadway or Hollywood. “I didn’t want to lose him either,” the mother says. “For 12 years, he was good at what he did, he was doing such a beautiful job. Nobody wanted to think anything was wrong.”
In retrospect, of course, lots of things can seem wrong: Schraufnagel’s long, parentless rehearsals and overly intimate conversations could be seen as red flags; remarks that seemed outré at the time now sound potentially sinister. Nohavicka blames Principal Rhodes, and told him so at a meeting with parents last year. “Either he knew and didn’t do anything, or he didn’t do his job and didn’t know what was going on,” she says. “It’s bad either way.”
Jay Worona, general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, isn’t familiar with the details of the Chappaqua case. But he says the most controversial part of the school district’s defense —the claim that harm students may have experienced was due to their own “carelessness, recklessness, [and] negligence,” or Schraufnagel’s — is a common legal defense. School districts generally issue these kinds of responses as “a boilerplate thing to protect the taxpayers ultimately,” he says. “It’s not that they’re saying the kid asked for it, but whatever damages there were to students and parents, maybe they contributed to the damages.”
Some parents and former students still don’t believe Schraufnagel is guilty of sexual abuse, and that disagreement has further riven the community. Chatzky, for instance, blames the controversy on “a bunch of homophobic, crazy, overprotective parents...I think 90% of what it is — this is a gay, young teacher.” One mother who’s suing the school district says she had another parent show up on her doorstep to tell her the allegations weren’t true.
Chatzky’s daughter, Hamilton, also believes that Schraufnagel “is innocent of most of the charges” and remains a steadfast supporter of her former teacher. “They make it seem like the theater department devolved into this weird bacchanal,” Hamilton says. “Did he push boundaries? Constantly. But they were boundaries that ultimately helped to turn me into a more confident, more adventurous, more well-rounded human being.” If anything inappropriate happened during Train Wreck, for instance, it wouldn’t have been Schraufnagel’s fault, Hamilton says, “it’s totally student-provoked — it could get uncomfortable if you confided in someone, and they brought it up.” The 2012 graduate agrees: “Maybe he talked inappropriately around us, but that’s because we pushed him. He was really just a big kid."
Even Robert never suspected before last year's bombshell that his teacher was sexually involved with students. But long before Schraufnagel’s arrest, Martinez had been wondering about the teacher’s close relationship with Matthew. “I had asked him several times whether he was having a sexual relationship with [him] over the years, and he always denied it,” says Martinez. “I took his word to be true — his reply was always, ‘No, we have a purely intellectual relationship, if we had anything physical, it would ruin it.’”
Then in April 2015, just two months before Matthew came forward, Martinez was visiting his old teacher at Greeley and says Schraufnagel confided in him: He was going through a tough time in his personal life. “[Matthew] is all I have,” Martinez remembers Schraufnagel saying, visibly distraught as they talked in the empty classroom. It was the last time that Martinez would see his former teacher, and he says he still doesn’t know the true nature of Schraufnagel’s relationship with Matthew: “I don’t pretend to know what happened there.”
Martinez remains grateful for Schraufnagel’s support while he was a student, and believes the freedom he had in the theater program was critical to its success. At the same time, Martinez says, “I think that if [the school] had had a closer eye on him, he would have been fired years ago.”
In early August, the town of New Castle’s tiny courtroom was packed with dozens of residents, including a handful of teenagers, waiting for Schraufnagel to appear.
When the former teacher walked in, dressed in a pale-blue suit and matching striped tie, the crowd broke into whispers.
Schraufnagel kept his head down as he sat and waited; before his last court appearance, Nohavicka had looked his way and mouthed the words: “I hope you fry.” When the case was finally called, Schraufnagel stood and gripped the back of the chair in front of him. Both sides had agreed to a plea bargain: Schraufnagel would plead guilty to three misdemeanor counts of endangering the welfare of a child, admitting that two of the offenses involved “sexual contact” with underage students. The deal would require him to give up his teaching license and serve three years’ probation, including sex-offender treatment, and work and residency restrictions. But the felony charge would be dropped, he would avoid jail time, and his name wouldn’t appear in sex-offender registries.
Assistant District Attorney Mary Clark-DiRusso told the court that the kids involved in the criminal case, along with their parents, support the deal. “It took a certain amount of courage for these kids to come forward to begin with,” she told Judge Douglas Kraus, New Castle’s town justice. “Then to have them testify in front of a grand jury and at a trial would be more involvement.” The plea bargain would allow them to move forward without participating further.
The judge seemed taken aback: He didn’t know that a plea deal was in the works and would need to think it over. Then Schraufnagel’s defense attorney, Stacey Richman, spoke up, in a voice so low it was barely more than a whisper. “He has significant advanced cancer that has spread,” Richman said of Schraufnagel, adding that he’s already had two surgeries and would be undergoing a third. The judge relented: He would take the plea tonight, pending his further review. After admitting to each of the counts, Schraufnagel swiftly exited the room, pursued by reporters.
Weeks later, Judge Kraus still hasn’t accepted the plea bargain, expressing concern in a letter to the prosecutors and the defense attorney that Schraufnagel won’t be required to register as a sex offender. It’s an unusual delay, fueling speculation that Schraufnagel might ultimately face a harsher penalty when he returns to court this fall.
In late August, a sixth family filed papers in hopes of moving forward with a civil lawsuit. According to court documents, the Greeley student had “been the victim of physical, sexual and emotional assaults and threats” by Schraufnagel, but the family declined to take legal action at the time: A school social worker said that the student was suicidal when the story broke, and he was later diagnosed with PTSD. In a request filed to the state Supreme Court, the student’s mother also claims Rhodes told her that “in 2011 there were accusations made about Mr. Schraufnagel similarly abusing a student at Greeley,” and that she believes the school investigated but never went to the police. (A lawyer for the sixth claimant declined to elaborate on the alleged incident, a claim that hadn’t surfaced publicly before.) That sets off another flurry of news coverage, including a brutal critique of the district by the local newspaper’s editorial board.
Meanwhile, another school year has started, and the theater kids will soon begin preparing for the fall musical, Into the Woods — a show that Schraufnagel adored. Last year was challenging for Schraufnagel’s replacement, Jonathan Gellert, as students constantly compared him to their old teacher and felt disappointed. Robert can understand why: While Gellert is a veteran teacher, his standards feel like a step down from the rigor that Schraufnagel demanded. “It felt very juvenile, very high school,” he says.
But Robert also thinks students aren’t giving Gellert enough credit. Compared to Schraufnagel, Gellert “was a better overall teacher,” Robert says. “He was a high-school teacher, and that’s what he was supposed to be.”