Facing A Frightening Past

Victim Confronts Abusive Teacher 20 Years Later

It's tough to talk to a teen-ager about a teacher who went too far. But thatÂ's one of many difficult issues Donna Covello deals with. As 48 Hours Anchor Dan Rather reports, this sexual victim turned activist lobbies for tougher penalties for educators who abuse children.

"I'm a survivor of a teacher abusing," Covello says. "No child should have to go through what I went through."

Covello's nightmare began in 1973 at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. She was 14.

"It was the first day of classes, and Mr. Gary Landau, who was a guidance counselor and a dean of boys, asked me would I mind working in his office," Covello says.

"I think initially I felt very flattered," she says. "And so for about the first two weeks, every day at 3, I would go into his office and he would show me, you know, how to file."

"He was very popular. He was fairly good-looking. He was about in his early 30s. Everybody loved him in school," she says.

"I grew up inÂ…the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn," Covello explains. "And my father was a taxicab driver, and my mother was a housewife. I was the third; I was the youngest."

"One day he grabbed me and turned me around and kissed me on the lips," she says. "And I just thought that this is what happens in high school. You get to date the teachers. You get to date the guidance counselors."

"So I walked out there, you know, feeling like, 'Oh, great, I finally have a boyfriend,'" Covello recalls.

"He told me to return after school. This time he shut the door. And he went over to a file cabinet and he pulled out a magazine of pornographic pictures," she says.

"And he said, 'Women love to be raped, beaten and abused.' And he was gonna show me how to be a woman. And that started four years of him sadistically abusing me," Covello says.

"He would force me to perform oral sex on him, but he would grade me on my performance. And so if I did not perform to what he wanted me to perform to, he would also beat me up," she adds.

"It was pretty lousy," Covello says. "I wasn't a good student because he would pull me out of classes to perform these acts, and I would have to go back to class. AndÂ…how could one concentrate?"

Covello didnÂ't tell anyone at school, but she suspects that people knew what was going on. She says school officials should have been suspicious. "They always saw us together, and he was very daring."

"Mr. Landau opened the door up and in a dark room with the shades down. The assistant principal looked at me and looked at Gary and said, 'Gary, be careful,' and walked out the door,Â…did not say anything to me," Covello says.

The relationship continued until Covello graduated. The fallout: She developed anorexia and got involved in drugs. It took more than 20 years for her to get back on her feet.

"At the ge of 18 or 19, I attempted suicide," Covello continues. "And I really didn't even reach rock bottom then. It was about five years ago that I hit rock bottom."

"Basically, I became involved with an abusive man at work. And the way I handle stress, as I did throughout my life, is I stop eating. So I went down to 78 pounds," she says.

Covello was subsequently hospitalized. Four years ago, after months of therapy, she finally decided to deal with her past by returning to Lafayette High School and confronting Landau. This time she recorded the conversation with hopes of getting a confession.

Ed Stancik, who runs special investigations for the New York City schools, played an instrumental role in the operation. "[The] case is one of the ones we're proudest of simply because it was absolutely undoable without the tape," says Stancik.

"I asked him, 'Do you recognize me?' And he said yes," Covello recalls. "His eyes were getting glassy and red. And he was ready to jump."

"After the initial, 'How you doing? How you doing?' he started to talk about the good old days. The investigators needed him to be specific," Covello says.

"I asked him, 'Do you remember when we had oral sex in that corner?' And he said, 'Oh, baby, yes,Â'" Covello says. "And he lunged at me to grab me, to start kissing me."

Covello walked out of the school, but investigators needed more. They wanted her to meet with Landau again, this time at a nearby diner. It was during this reunion that Covello thought she got the proof she needed. He finally admitted everything.

The hidden tape also recorded Landau telling Covello, "Those were things which you enjoyed."

"I was young; I was impressionable," she says. "I had a lot of guilt because, as he was saying to me, 'Well, you enjoyed it, you liked it,' you know, I just kept thinking, well, you know, I had a pair of legs. Why didn't I walk out? "

"I couldn't. I was scared, and I was very confused and lonely," Covello says. "I did not see it as abuse. I saw it as I had a love relationship with my high school guidance counselor."

When Landau left the diner, investigators had the goods on him. But it was 21 years after the crime, too late for prosecution, and Landau denied everything. So the school let him retire, giving him a full pension and benefits. He lives in Florida.

"I would certainly prefer that he had been prosecuted," Stancik says. "We were certainly pleased we were able to get him out of the New York City school system."

But Covello decided to take her anger a step further. So she met with groups interested in education and started lobbying for tougher penalties for educators who abuse children and for better background checks.

New York is one of 18 states with no mandatory fingerprint check, and almost half the states, including New York, do not check applicants' ecords with the FBI.

"Teachers unions are very, very protective," Covello says. "And they don't want to do these background checks."

Debra Nelson of New York State United Teachers says any law must be balanced. "Teachers and their unions have absolutely no stake in protecting individuals that should not be in the classroom," Nelson declares. "That balance needs to be the all-important issue of protecting children, first and foremost, but also that the rights of innocent individuals are not trampled on."

But even background checks are no protection against a teacher allowed to resign quietly after being caught.

"It happens all over," Covello asserts. "The school's reputation is so much more important."

"When one has experienced being sexually abused by a person who's in a position of trust or authority, the victim is really never the same," she says.

"The feelings of disgust, despair are with us every waking moment. The pain that is inside is unbearable. It is like a deep, open wound," says Covello, who now serves as president of Survivors of Education Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Emergence.