Sarra Klassen doesn't think of textbooks and classmates when looking back on her days at Sisters High School. She sees Steve Gage - now a convicted sexual predator - spying on her through a window of her classroom door.
"People who run Sisters High must really like Gage," the Medford girl, now 19, remembers thinking. "I thought he worked there. He was like a shadow."
Steven Gage ran Royal Haven Equestrian Center, a home for troubled teen-age girls, on the outskirts of Sisters from 1993 to 1999. Earlier this year, a Deschutes County judge sentenced Gage to 45 years in prison for crimes committed against 16 girls entrusted in his care. His offenses ranged from rape to not getting girls medical care.
Most of the 85 girls who attended Gage's school over the years also attended nearby Sisters High School. During that time, the Sisters School District supported Gage in a close and unusual relationship:
Former Royal Haven residents told The Bulletin, Bend's newspaper, that teachers and staff at Sisters High treated them well. But Gage's constant presence and influence at the school imprisoned them, making them too afraid to speak up.
- The district made Gage truancy officer and allowed him to bring his "drug dog" to the high school without checking his background.
- Gage freely walked the high school hallways, not signing in as parents are required. He was also given keys to the building.
- The district supported Gage, who forbade his girls to see school counselors and socializing with other students.
- The district designated Gage's home as an alternative learning site - a status that Gage used to discourage the state from licensing or monitoring his program.
School district administrators maintain they treated Gage the same as they would a parent and that his belligerent, controlling behavior escalated over time.
"Did I suspect he was abusing children- No. Did I have concerns- Yes. But they were about his general demeanor. He was getting out of control," school district Superintendent Steve Swisher told The Bulletin.
The Bulletin interviewed school district officials, parents and girls who stayed at Royal Haven and examined Gage's criminal court files and other documents obtained through public records requests. No current teachers or counselors would be interviewed for this story. Their observations come from interviews with police as Gage was being investigated last fall.
Gage's association with the school district began in 1993, when he and his girlfriend and business associate, Karen Lee, moved from Cottage Grove to Central Oregon and opened Royal Haven on a 50-acre horse ranch.
Gage and Lee, who had two young daughters together, led people to believe they were married and could rehabilitate wayward girls, ages 12 to 18. Parents paid an average $2,500 a month to place their children in the couple's hands.
Gage's freedom to roam the school's hallways allowed him to spy and control the girls' actions. One day he suddenly appeared in Susan Scott's computer class as she and a boy were talking, Scott told The Bulletin.
Gage spoke to her teacher, then quickly pulled her from the classroom and took her back to the ranch. As punishment, Gage made her shovel horse manure for a day, said Scott, now 20.
Gage yanked some girls from a psychology class after they were asked to tell a little about themselves.
When Gage found out that Katie Lake had talked to Deborah Newport, one of the school counselors, he pulled her from school. Katie had violated one of his rules: no talking to counselors.
"I knew that if the girls talked to me about anything on a personal level they would get in trouble," Newport said.
Gage was never a counselor, according to court documents, yet he persuaded the school district that he and Lee - not the school's certified counselors - could best handle the girls' therapy needs. By blocking girls from seeing those counselors, Gage was further able to isolate them.
Though Swisher and staff members were aware of the no-counselor policy, then principal Dennis Dempsey said he was not. "If such a ban existed, Gage must have imposed it himself," he said. "Those girls could see anyone they wanted,"
Dempsey also said the girls could have seen counselor Dan Saraceno, who was the designated district liaison to Royal Haven.
Gage and Lee paid Saraceno $1,000 to teach summer school at Royal Haven. Most of the checks they wrote bounced, Saraceno told investigators last fall.
Gage also didn't allow the girls to socialize with other students, and had them spy on one another to make sure no one did.
Gage ordered the girls to always stay in pairs - with an older and more-trusted girl monitoring the "new girl." If he caught someone doing something he didn't like - talking to a school counselor, for example - he'd punish the other girls for not telling him.
"I worried about the girls in Gage's program," teacher Jon Renner told investigators last fall. "I thought it was unusual how the girls were always so concerned about breaking Gage's rules when he was supposed to be their caregiver."