Opinion Columns & Blogs

Dean Smith case is creepy and nauseous

The stomach-churning tale of North County’s reincarnation of Humbert Humbert — aka Dean Smith — is creepy on its surface, and when you peruse the documents about the case released under the California Public Records Act, you’ll find yourself growing even queasier.

Two things stand out in the paperwork surrounding Smith’s forced resignation as San Miguel’s superintendent of schools after his allegedly inappropriate relationship with a student became public.

The first is his staggering denial about that relationship.

The second is the failure of too many people who knew about it to stop him for a long, long time, or hold him accountable, or even counsel him, apparently because he was slithering around within the boundaries of the law.

For those of you who missed it, Smith resigned last month after school board investigators concluded that he misused his position to develop a relationship with a former student. The girl is now a legal adult, and the district’s investigation calls her his “18-year-old girlfriend.”

But it is not the interaction between two adults that concerned the school board.

Although the board listed many complaints against Smith in working toward his resignation, what clearly weighed on them was his ongoing relationship with the girl, who met Smith when she was in the seventh grade and he was principal at Templeton Middle School.

Smith might have just sneaked away quietly, and this might all have stayed under the radar, had not the documents become public.


What is in the paperwork?

Well, here is a January 2008 e-mail from Smith to the girl, with Smith’s spelling and punctuation intact.

“I’m so sorry that you miss being happpppppy. That is just tooooo profound from someone your age. I wish I could help to make you happpppppy…..Life IS weird, but so are YOU! (Sorry. I didn’t mean to yell). I am totally stressed and out of control. I need out. Can you help?”

Did I mention that this is not an exchange between two pre-teen girls talking about Justin Bieber? Rather, it is a message from a 50-something authority figure to a high school teenager.

As a teenager might tweet — “Eeeewwww!”

This is just one of many exchanges and incidents that set the school board to shuddering. Board members also found fault with Smith escorting the girl to various public events.

How did Smith react when the board’s gag reflex kicked in?

With righteous indignation.

He told the trustees they are prudes.

“The board’s underlying motivation … is to express its members’ personal disapproval of my association with (the girl).”

The girl, he said, was “another adult, whom I happened to meet when she was a minor.”

His interactions with her are not only none of the board’s business, he wrote, but an “impermissible intrusion” into his private life.

“The board apparently disapproves of the age difference between myself and (the girl). All of us enjoy a constitutional right to engage in lawful associations with others in our personal lives,” he huffed.

There’s more of this, 14 pages worth, with Smith portraying himself as a savior and father figure to the troubled youngster and a friend to her and her family. He helped her get through “adolescent crises,” he wrote.

‘There’s no victim’

Smith has an explanation for every complaint. Silly nicknames are common; secret handshakes such as one he had with the girl increase self-esteem; bystanders misinterpreted his statements and actions.

He believes he acted with prudence by waiting until she was 18 to declare his feelings toward her, which had developed when she was still a minor.

The fact that he did not declare his feelings to her before she turned 18 means he committed no crime, investigators said he told them, repeatedly. “You have to have a victim to have a crime,” he told them.

I know what you’re thinking: This guy has the self-awareness of a tree stump and the social awareness of a slug.

His behavior does indeed look like that of Humbert Humbert, the protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s great novel, “Lolita.” Humbert lusted after the nymphet Lolita, and the only difference I can see between him and Smith is that Humbert knew what he was doing and that it was wrong.

Smith’s 14-page defense of his behavior, however, does raise one very good point. Almost nobody called him out on what he was doing.

Maybe they thought he would know better and use some mature judgment. It’s a reasonable hope, but, in this case, clearly naïve. After all, this is a man who, according to the district’s investigation, “often refers to himself as either a Brad Pitt or a George Clooney lookalike, which bothers employees.”

Smith went hither and yon with this girl — to church, to Starbucks, to meetings. The relationship developed over several years, at two school districts. And apparently nobody ever said, “Hey, Dean — you know what? She’s a kid and you’re in your 50s. What’s the deal here?”

A Sheriff’s Department investigation apparently triggered by someone who cares about children finally alerted the school board. However, the sheriff gave Smith a pass as well, which I find dumbfounding.

Well, Smith is away from the school district now, so we can be thankful for small favors. It somehow seems as though that’s not enough, but it’ll have to do.

It’s an unsatisfying end to a sorry story. Perhaps those who remain can use it as a cautionary tale.