Education International
Education International

Denmark and USA: Danish Union launches Legal Defence Fund to support trainee teacher

published 13 November 2014 updated 19 November 2014

The Danish pre-school teachers union, BUPL, is seeking financial support from other EI affiliates, to assist with payment of the huge legal costs of defending a member of the union who has been accused of ‘inappropriate behaviour of a sexual nature ’ at a preschool in New York.

Malthe Thomsen, a teaching student from Copenhagen, undertook an internship, in February, at the International Preschools in Midtown Manhattan, in New York. He quickly became popular in the school and was starting to take on more responsibility, accompanying children on field trips and helping them learn to draw.

BUPL noted that the Danish movie “The Hunt” shows how easily a male educator can be accused of paedophilia. Unfortunately this risk keeps many talented young men away from the profession, as teachers or early childhood educators.

“Experiences we have had in Denmark show that the fear of being accused for paedophilia influences how male educators act,” BUPL President Henning Pedersen wrote in an article on the Thomsen’s case published in in the BUPL magazine “Børn&Unge”. “This ultimately affects children in a negative way if male educators neglect their professionalism for fear of suspicion. From 2008 to 2012, we know about 67 suspicions of paedophilia against educators in Denmark, but only in one single case a court legal sentence was carried out.”

In late May, just as the academic year was wrapping up, a co-worker sent an email about Mr. Thomsen to a supervisor in which she alleged that he had engaged in inappropriate behaviour of a sexual nature with children under his care. The school’s leaders watched Mr. Thomsen discreetly and questioned his colleagues. After a few days, when they did not turn up anything suspicious, they closed the investigation and fired his accuser, who refused to provide to them her alleged evidence.

“The head teachers and other educators who spent significant time with the class all said they had not observed any inappropriate behaviour on the part of the intern and were highly complementary of his work with the children,” the school’s director, Donna Cohen, later said in an email to parents, one of seven sent in the days after the arrest. The school noted that it had received several letters of recommendation for Mr. Thomsen.

Mr. Thomsen, 22, kept his position at the International Preschools and started working in its summer program. His accuser, however, took her complaints to the authorities, and in late June, the police questioned him. Several hours later, they obtained a statement that prosecutors described as a confession. He was arrested on suspicion of improperly touching 13 children.

Police officials would not comment on Mr. Thomsen’s interrogation. But a lawyer for Mr. Thomsen, Jane H. Fisher-Byrialsen, said the police used deceptive techniques to intimidate him. She said Mr. Thomsen was not accustomed to the hard-nosed tactics of American law enforcement. She said they told him that they had videos of his lewd behaviour and that, unlike child rapists who were locked away for many years, he could simply seek treatment for his problems in Denmark. It is unclear whether or not such videos exist; prosecutors would not comment on the evidence they had gathered.

In a television interview, Mr. Thomsen said he trusted the police and was confused by the suggestion that they had seen videos of him improperly touching children. “I couldn’t remember having done any of the things they said I had done,” he said.

Under New York State law, the police are allowed to lie when questioning suspects, so long as they are not coercive. Stephen J. Schulhofer, a law professor at New York University, said that lying about the existence of videos or fingerprints was a standard technique. “Even if there is never any hint of having a video, they can make it all up and say, ‘How do you explain that?’ ” he said.

Mr. Schulhofer said the police might have crossed a line if they suggested that the only consequence for Mr. Thomsen would be treatment at a clinic, which could prompt a false confession, but he noted that it was unclear exactly what was said during the interrogation.

Prosecutors said the interrogation was not recorded by the police. At a bail hearing this month, Rachel Ferrari, a prosecutor, said Mr. Thomsen “was never tricked or manipulated into making these statements.”

Anger among parents at the lack of official information led some families to hire their own lawyers to investigate. His accuser, who said her firing constituted retaliation, also hired a lawyer. Mr. Thomsen’s legal team said that he was a victim of a teacher who often complained about co-workers, and of detectives who improperly duped him into confessing to crimes he did not commit.

Mr. Thomsen has not been formally indicted; prosecutors are gathering evidence to present to a grand jury.  His parents have mortgaged properties in Denmark to help pay the $400,000 bail for his release from the Rikers Island jail complex and are staying with him in Manhattan.

Mr. Thomsen’s friends and family back home have raised more than $50,000 to help pay his legal fees. His case has caught the attention of Danish journalists, who have commented on the harsh conditions at Rikers, where Mr. Thomsen had been held.

In a recent interview with a Danish television station, Mr. Thomsen denied the charges, saying that touching children in a sexual way was “something I have always thought is among the worst things anyone can do.”

Both of Mr. Thomsen’s parents worked in early childhood education, and later this year, he hoped to earn a degree in education from University College Capital in Copenhagen.

The costs of legal defence in the USA are notoriously high. Costs have already exceeded 600,000 Danish Krone (around €80,600). Rent, living expenses and flight costs amount to about 40,000 kr. (around €5,300) per month.

Financial contributions to the legal defence fund may be made via:

- Bank Transfer at the Jyske Bank: registration number: 5016; bank account number: 0001269381

- PayPal

You can also support Thomsen via the Facebook page “Support the teacher student detained in New York”, and/or join the petition ’Free Malthe’.