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Onondaga children lead the healing

ONONDAGA NATION, N.Y. - The first things the Onondaga Nation did after the arrest last December of Albert Scerbo was to renew the classroom where the former music teacher committed the acts that led to his conviction as a child

sexual offender.

Renovating the classroom was the first step in healing the damage caused by the unforeseeable betrayal by a man once trusted with the community's children.

''We painted the walls a different color, took out the chairs that were there and just made the room totally different than it was before,'' said nation member Bradley Powless, a math and culture teacher at the school.

The room was transformed over the January break and almost completed by the time the students returned.

''When the room was finally done, we had a community blessing and we sang one of our social songs and when we walked in together, the kids could see that the room was different and that it was safe,'' Powless said.

Scerbo, 45, had taught at the Onondaga Nation School for seven years. He was charged in December with molesting two girls. More victims came forward during the investigation, resulting in Scerbo's indictment in March on 35 counts of sex abuse and endangering the welfare of 17 girls ranging in age from 7 to 14. Charges involving four of the girls were eventually dropped due to contradictory or insufficient evidence.

In early August, a jury found Scerbo guilty of first-degree sex abuse and endangering the welfare of a child, related to one victim, and acquitted him on the remaining 17 charges.

''It's been very bad for us,'' said Jeanne Shenandoah, Onondaga, who works in the nation's communications department. ''Nothing like this has ever happened before. We all share the same feelings that it's going to take a long, long time to get over this. It's horrible that this has happened to so many of our children, I guess you can say right under our noses, in our school in our community.''

The community came together quickly to maintain balance and protect the children, Powless said.

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''We were fortunate that one of our language teachers is also a singer. The music program in the past was mostly instrumental learning and individual lessons. What the group decided was we couldn't hire a new music teacher back in January, but our language teacher took over the time that had been used for band practice and practiced our social songs. And the kids loved it, they really loved it,'' Powless said.

''I think the best thing we did was keep the music in their lives through the Onondaga social songs,'' Powless said.

The non-Native teachers at the school were also dismayed by the case and by the way they were characterized in the press, Powless said.

''They were upset and angry that his defense team portrayed them as being afraid of the kids and the community and that the community was trying to get rid of all non-Native members. That was the defense team's strategy,'' he said.

The kids, more than anyone, have been the real heroes, Powless said.

''The kids are the strongest ones in our community. They're leading us through this, especially in the beginning when everything was breaking and they were still able to participate in school and do all kinds of activities,'' he said.

It was hard for some of the girls to testify during the July trial and face Scerbo, who they had not seen since he left the school last December.

''But they were strong enough to do it,'' Powless said.

The students initiated what might become a new eighth grade graduation tradition: singing Onondaga friendship songs instead of playing ''Pomp and Circumstance.''

''They are beautiful, beautiful songs where people walk together in friendship, and the students did so well that everyone said, 'Why didn't we think of this before?''' he said.

Scerbo was released on bail and will be sentenced Oct. 10, which will be further closure for the nation.