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CHICAGO — A quick search on Google reveals a lot about Matthew Baron of Chicago.

He has not one, but two rock bands. One is called Future Hits and features educational songs for children. Another is an indie/alternative group called Young Man in a Hurry.

Baron’s life has been bookended by those two creative passions: music and education. He’s an English as a Second Language instructor and has been a Social & Emotional Learning teacher for several years. 

“This is a job where I get to work with kids and adults, parents, families and the community and just be really engaged all the time,” Baron said. 

Another hit on the Google search is connected to his teaching job at Skinner West Elementary School in Chicago’s West Loop and a dark and troubling headline in May of 2019: “CPS teacher arrested, accused of inappropriate physical contact in classroom.” 

A Google search connected to Matthew Baron’s teaching job at Skinner West Elementary School in Chicago’s West Loop shows a troubling headline. (Photo: WGN)

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“[A child] made an allegation that I put my hand down the bare back of this student in the classroom for about nine minutes and gave this person a bare back massage,” Baron said.

The allegation came from a sixth-grade boy who said it happened while Baron put on a film for students to watch in a darkened classroom. 

Baron learned about the allegations while he was in New York on a music tour. The call came from his principal who expressed doubt about the allegation but told him he was suspended during the investigation. Skinner families were also notified in a letter.  

“It was shocking,” Baron said. “But also at the same time, I wasn’t worried in a way because I was like, ‘This is all going to shake out quickly. This never happened. Once whomever needs to look at it looks at it, it’ll be obvious and we’ll all move on with our lives.’ But that didn’t happen.” 

What did happen was an arrest, fingerprinting and a mugshot. And then there were the news reports. The student’s mother posted about the allegation on Facebook and named Baron before he was even charged with a crime. Some called him a pedophile who groomed children. The mother began asking for others to come forward. It all was coming at a time when CPS was being criticized in a Chicago Tribune series for failing kids when it came to keeping children safe from predators.

And in a real way, Baron understood the optics. 

“I always believed the accusers,” he said. “Always. Especially kids. Why would they say it if it didn’t happen?” 

It didn’t take long for Baron to understand how and where the story began. He believes it was retaliation for disciplining another, unruly student who was disruptive in class. He noticed the two huddled together after school that day. 

“It was obvious to me from the start because I knew they were very good friends,” he said. “And I don’t want to disparage anybody but given my experience with the particular student I got in the spat with, I wouldn’t put it past this person to try and hatch some retaliatory scheme against me.” 

The allegation came out soon after. Even though he was building an understanding, it still was hard to grasp. 

“I remember being on the phone with Whitney, my then fiancé, now wife, who was in Norway, just sobbing in a parking lot of Blick Art Supply,” Baron said. “I was buying notebooks, wondering ‘How the heck could this happen? How the heck could this happen?!’”  

The shame and embarrassment were mounting as he figured out how to fight the charge and perception. 

“It feels just guilt by accusation,” Baron said. “Just the accusation in and of itself, it’s like a permanent stain, a scarlet letter. I don’t know if it’ll truly go away. It was on the news. It was smeared on Facebook by the parent of the accusing child. Other people were jumping on that.” 

But there was also support from the Skinner community. Many were having a hard time believing the story. Fellow teacher Jeff Merkin spoke to the sense of bewilderment and doubt.

Matthew Baron (Photo: WGN)

“Originally, there was a lot of people talking,” Merkin said. “I felt bad that his name got out right away before the facts came out. Real quickly the teachers gathered together, we knew him well, (and knew) that this was not true.”

There were multiple investigations with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, the Chicago Board of Education and Chicago Public Schools. The Cook County State’s Attorney declined to file felony charges.  

“A couple of kids corroborated the story, but their stories were not anything he was saying,” Baron said.

A misdemeanor battery charge stood.  At trial, the inconsistencies came to light. Testimony from the two students differed on the date. One testified the contact was on the student’s back. The other said it was his leg. Also in dispute was the duration of the exchange. One said the massage was nine minutes, the other reported it lasted less than a minute.

And then there was the matter of the lights which, because of electrical work at the school, could not be turned off. 

“You could not turn them off. You could not dim them,” Baron said, adding there were 30 other children in the room. 

Exonerated, Matthew Baron eventually returned to a CPS classroom. (Photo: Provided)

“I think just the truth came to light in a very obvious way. They [sheriff’s deputies in the courtroom] came up to my attorneys and said this is unbelievable, this testimony is obviously false, and we can’t believe that we’re all here today,” Baron said.

After cross-examination during his bench trial, Baron was finally exonerated.

“It was a climactic moment,” Baron said. “My legs were shaking and the second the judge started to read the findings — about 5 or 10 seconds in — my whole body was loosening. He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I find you not guilty.’ I felt like I was floating.”

By then, DCFS and the Board of Education had already dismissed the complaint. In February, CPS allowed Baron back into the classroom.

“Just on my walk into work, I –this is surreal, I felt like I was watching a movie,” Baron said. “This doesn’t happen. People who are falsely accused, having trials, they don’t return to where they came from. It felt really important to go back, even for one day. Even for one day, it was my goal.”

At Skinner, there were cheers and relief that day.

“In one of the classrooms I walked into they started chanting, ‘not guilty’ and started hugging each other like they won the Super Bowl,” Baron said. “I played music in all the classrooms. And so I was back into doing my thing, teaching ESL, social and emotional learning with my original songs that I write and my slideshows. It was amazing.”

That one day turned into six weeks. Amid all the joy, Baron still felt a trepidation. It was crystallized by one student’s voice hurling the phrase “child molester” in an auditorium.

“I felt awful, especially because I remembered that kid as a first grader and now here he was an eighth grader, snapshotting it,” he said.

Where does that path go? Baron stepped away from teaching for the time being. He and his wife had a young son and he’s been on extended paternity leave as he considers the next step.

Matthew Baron pictured with his wife, Whitney. (Photo: Provided)

“Being falsely accused by a student as an adult is inherently shameful, guilt by accusation,” Baron said. “And for me to release the shame of even the accusation, not even of having done anything, just being accused…for me to stuff it down and put it behind me and sweep it under the rug and pretend it never happened, I believe it would eat away at me. And telling it is very scary.”

Baron’s other creative outlet, his music, will continue to tell his story, which serves him better, with the light now shining on it.

“I was on the phone with someone and he told me, he said, ‘Matt, if you put this story behind you, it’ll become a shadow. But if you put it out in front of you, it could be the light that shapes your life moving forward,’”   he said.

The city of Chicago settled its case with Baron. It’s not clear what bearing it had on the case, but in his resulting lawsuit, Baron argued the investigating detective and the boy’s mother had started a romantic relationship, which the detective admitted to in a court filing. WGN News spoke with her by phone, but she declined to be interviewed, she said out of concern for her son.