Steve Escame was the most inspiring teacher and coach some Foster High students ever had. But one Des Moines woman, motivated by seeing Bill Cosby led away in handcuffs, has come forward to accuse the retired 80-year-old of pursuing her romantically while she was a freshman and sophomore.
Rebecca Bomann watched Bill Cosby led away in handcuffs after he was sentenced to prison last September for sexually assaulting a woman. Then she called the Tukwila School District.
The 43-year-old Des Moines businesswoman said she told the district a secret she had kept for decades – one that on Monday became the subject of a civil lawsuit in King County Superior Court.
In her freshman and sophomore years of high school, Bomann said in interviews and the lawsuit, she was pursued by a teacher and coach in his 50s.
By her account, the sexual harassment, except for one kiss, was not physical. But it was repeated: comments about her legs, romantic notes, a valentine slipped into her locker, and an invitation to meet him in a motel “penthouse” during a debate tournament. He also made her uncomfortable by showing up at her soccer and softball practices, according to the lawsuit, and told Bomann she looked fantastic in the tight pants she wore for softball games.
“I felt like people are finally ready to hear this,” she said, explaining why Cosby’s sentencing prompted her to come forward. If accusations against a beloved Hollywood celebrity could be believed, so perhaps could her claims about a celebrity from Foster High.
Now 80 and retired, Steve Escame is considered by some to be the most inspiring teacher they ever had. Former students remember the curly-locked Escame – who taught English and coached boys tennis and girls volleyball as well as debate – as having a youthful energy, high expectations and a passion for making sure kids could diagram a sentence.
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“He was an amazing teacher and coach. I would never deny that,” said Bomann, who came into Escame’s orbit not only in debate but in his ninth-grade honors English and journalism classes. “He invested a lot of time into my development as student.”
The price she paid, according to the lawsuit, was sexual attention that made the driven, college-minded student feel “ashamed, dirty, and afraid,” wary of male teachers and socially withdrawn. “Up until her 9th grade year, school had been Ms. Bomann’s favorite place to be,” according to the 11-page complaint. “At Foster High School, it quickly became her least favorite place.”
Even today, she said, she feels uncomfortable if people outside of her immediate family sit too close to her, and she’s long had a recurring nightmare of being chased.
Escame, reached by phone, expressed surprise when told Bomann claims he harassed her.
“Oh well, I probably did,” he said, though he immediately added he “used to tease everybody” and wouldn’t interpret such behavior as sexual harassment.
During a brief conversation, he offered to talk more in person, but called back to decline further comment after talking to a lawyer.
Demanding and popular
Bomann said she was making her experiences known nearly 30 years later to generate more discussion about harassment in schools and what resources are available to kids. Even teachers and coaches who are gifted, she said, shouldn’t be left in positions of authority they abuse.
She’s one of many people in the #MeToo era thinking more about things that happened long ago, and the lingering effects on their psyche. Catherine Slagle, who directs an office under the state Superintendent of Public Instruction that investigates misconduct, said several allegations have come in over the past couple of years related to sexualized behavior 15 to 25 years ago. She said there will probably be more.
Bomann’s lawsuit holds the Tukwila School District responsible, saying it was negligent by failing to protect her from a man who had a “known sexual propensity toward students.”
Escame is not named as a defendant.
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Records from Escame’s tenure at Foster, obtained by Bomann’s lawyer and shared with The Seattle Times, include a letter of reprimand following allegations of sexual comments made to other students. Then-Superintendent Michael Silver wrote the letter in 1987, two years before Bomann started at Foster.
The district said it does not comment on current litigation.
Escame worked for Highline and Federal Way schools – accumulating no record of disciplinary action, according to the districts – before starting at Foster. But it was at that high school that he served the longest, 23 years, beginning in 1968. He excelled.
“Only Steve could capture simultaneously the reputation as Foster High School’s most demanding and its most popular teacher,” wrote John Fotheringham, superintendent of what was then the South Central School District, in a 1981 letter nominating Escame to be Washington Education Association’s Teacher of the Year.
Amber Parviainen, in Foster’s class of 1991, called Escame, her volleyball coach, “the most amazing person I’ve ever met in my entire life.”
When he first met her, she recalled, he said: “My, young lady, you have ugly knees.” It made her laugh and put the transfer student at ease.
Escame soon found out Parviainen was interested in a teaching career and encouraged her to join the speech-and-debate team. Now a second-grade teacher, she still sends Escame Christmas cards.
He attended her mother’s and grandfather’s funerals and traveled to Spokane for her wedding in 1997. “Who does that?” she asked. She said she never witnessed any harassment.
State Sen. Mark Mullet, who graduated from Foster in 1990 and also still sends Escame Christmas cards, said the charismatic figure was “probably the most impactful teacher I had in my life,” including in college.
“He had a gift of making you believe if you focus, you could be extremely successful,” Mullet said.
Those under Escame’s tutelage tended to go on to college from a school where most students didn’t, the legislator added.
But he says he remembers comments Escame made about Bomann and other girls. They strike him now, as the father of four daughters, as inappropriate. “Oh, I love the legs on that girl,” the teacher might say at tennis tournaments, according to Mullet, who was on debate and tennis teams Escame coached.
Thinking anew about Escame in light of Bomann’s allegations, Mullet said it was all tough to process given what his former teacher meant to him. Still, he verified letters he wrote from college to Bomann, a friend, when she was still at Foster.
“He’s always told me how much he liked your tush,” one letter said, referring to Escame. “Did Escame leave his wife for you yet??” read another.
“Knew it was wrong”
In a Kent suite of offices where Bomann runs a business helping seniors downsize, she laid out a number of other notes, cards and yearbooks she saved from high school, which are now cited in her lawsuit.
“I knew it was wrong,” she said of Escame’s behavior, explaining why she kept these things. “The notes made it real. It wasn’t just in my head.”
There was the red heart made of construction paper she said she found in her locker on Valentine’s Day of her sophomore year. “Rebecca I wuv you,” reads a message in cut-out letters.
While the valentine was not signed, Bomann’s lawsuit said Escame told her a few days later it came from him.
Bomann also displayed a note written on Aloha Motel stationery that she said she got during a debate competition in Bellingham. It was addressed to “Q.W.” and signed “O.M.,” references she said are to Escame’s pet name for her, “Quintessential Woman,” and nickname for himself, “Old Man.”
“Meet me in the penthouse – good luck tonite,” the note read. The motel didn’t have a “penthouse,” Bomann said, and she ignored the request.
One of the oddest items was a yearbook signed in code. On a page devoted to the speech-and-debate team, numbers were written on top of certain letters. Writing the letters in numerical order, they spell “QWILVEYOUOM” – or as Bomann interprets it: “Q.W. (Quintessential Woman), I LVE YOU, OM (Old Man).”
Then, there is a letter, to Quintessential Woman and from Old Man, about a kiss.
Bomann said she received the letter at a Texas debate camp the summer after her sophomore year – when Escame had just retired. He had made it possible for her to go, she said, and she thanked him shortly before leaving during a party for retiring teachers. Escame leaned forward and kissed her on the lips, Bomann’s suit alleges.
In the letter, Old Man said he was “still fantasizing over the kiss,” which he called “an affectionate thank you from you.”
The letter went on: “I fantasize that you wish it could have been more….I really appreciate your keeping my feelings about/for you within yourself.”
Old Man ended by asking Bomann to throw the letter away and call when she got back. “If you’re not afraid, we’ll lunch!”
In the conversation with the Times, Escame acknowledged using the name “Quintessential Woman” for Bomann, saying he thought it came from a poem. “They all called me ‘the old man,’ ” he said of his nickname among students.
He said he didn’t remember everything from “what, 28 years ago, 27?” but believed any kiss would have been on the cheek and given by her.
The student he knew as Rebecca Pierce, he added, was a “really neat kid” and “our best debater.”
Did he have romantic feelings for her, Escame was asked, after the letter she received at debate camp was read to him. “Not romantic. Oh. I guess so. It might be the poet in me.”
“Fulfilling your own ego”
Bomann said she felt trapped. Having a married man in his 50s “come after you in the hallway is a lot for a 14-year-old,” she said.
She didn’t tell her parents. They had a difficult relationship and weren’t spending much time together, she said.
Her boyfriend at the time, Tom Jones, said Bomann told him that Escame gave her a valentine and was making her uncomfortable, but didn’t go into details. “It was a source of arguments between us. I always wanted to know more,” he said.
Her reticence also stemmed in part from Escame’s role as a mentor, Bomann said. She was relying on his help and good grades to get into college.
Her lawsuit asks for unspecified damages, though a tort claim submitted in November to the district said she is seeking $5 million.
Bomann said she felt validated after seeing the earlier reprimand, but that it raises questions about why the district didn’t do more to supervise him afterward.
The letter from Silver, the superintendent, said the allegations against Escame included “comments made to purposely embarrass students in the classroom, and comments suggesting sexual overtones, which occurred outside the classroom.”
Students, Silver wrote, “are not to be made targets of fulfilling your own ego or sexual needs.” He said he was requiring Escame to have an adult chaperone on future overnight trips with students and referring him to a voluntary employee assistance program.
Given that the misconduct was verbal, the superintendent said he was forgoing more severe discipline.
In a letter two months later, Silver said he would consider removing the reprimand from Escame’s file at the time of the teacher’s retirement. “I will carefully review your conduct and behavior as a teacher and will confer with you at that time.”
Whether the review happened is not indicated in the file forwarded by Bomann, but the letter of reprimand remains.