Accused of sexual abuse, but back in the classroom
By By Jason Song
May 10, 2009 | 12:00 AM
The 13-year-old on the witness stand looked to be an ordinary adolescent, her diffident smile unveiling a set of braces. Her attorney began gently, with questions about her favorite band and trips to the mall.
Then he brought up "Mr. Ricardo" and second grade. The girl buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
When her mother took the stand, she testified that the girl had not been the same since the day the teacher's aide put his hands on her. "I just believe this whole thing changed her life," the mother said. "I don't see her so confident around people. . . . I believe she has no interests."
A jury late last year ordered the Los Angeles Unified School District to pay nearly $1.6 million to the families of three girls molested by Ricardo Guevara, who is now serving 15 years in prison for lewd acts with a child.
But there was something the jury -- and the public -- was never told: This was the third set of accusations that Guevara had molested students. Twice before, when law enforcement officials had decided they lacked the evidence to win a criminal conviction, L.A. Unified officials had quietly put him back in the classroom.
Guevara's case fits a pattern, a Times investigation shows: Repeatedly, the district failed to follow up on sexual misconduct complaints against employees once police or prosecutors dropped criminal actions. Some ended up at new schools. In at least one instance -- involving Guevara -- the new principal had no idea of his history.
In three other cases documented by The Times, the employee went on to be charged with or convicted of molesting another student:
* An elementary school teacher was investigated for allegedly molesting a fourth-grader in 2001. After prosecutors declined to pursue the case, he was transferred to other schools and eventually molested a student in 2004. Convicted of a lewd act, he was sentenced to six years in prison.
* Another elementary school teacher was accused in 2002 of repeatedly forcing a female student to sit on his lap and pose for a camera. Police recommended that the district pursue the issue "administratively." School leaders handled the matter by telling him to stop. The teacher later pleaded no contest to sexual abuse of a child and received 16 years in prison.
* Steve Thomas Rooney, an assistant principal at Markham Middle School in Watts, was arrested last year on suspicion of sexually assaulting a student, sparking public outrage and calls for reform. In 2007, prosecutors had declined to prosecute Rooney for allegedly waving a gun at the stepfather of a student with whom he was suspected of having had a sexual relationship.
Prosecutors say molestation cases are extremely difficult to try because they often depend heavily on the accounts of young, frightened and shame-filled victims. But nothing prevents L.A. Unified from looking further into cases that police or prosecutors decline to pursue. Indeed, district policy has long required school officials to perform an independent inquiry.
Under state law, the district can fire teachers for conduct it deems immoral or unprofessional, even if the acts fall short of criminality. Rooney, for instance, allegedly showed up at the house of the first student at night and drove her around in his car. Had the district substantiated this, it might have been grounds for dismissal.
Teachers point out that students at times fabricate sexual abuse allegations. But instructors are entitled to due process, including administrative and court hearings if necessary.
In the meantime, "if there's some smoke there, then we should err on the side of the security and safety of students," said district Supt. Ramon C. Cortines.
That's the policy. The reality, The Times found, is that the district has erred on the side of protecting its staff.
To protect employees' privacy, files containing past misconduct allegations generally do not follow them to a new campus, according to the district.
Until a year or so ago there was no centralized system for tracking employees accused of child molestation or other serious crimes from school to school. The district relied on index cards that were supposed to be placed in an employee's file to indicate an accusation had been made, according to sworn depositions by district personnel in various civil cases. Even that didn't always happen.
"We didn't do a very good job, historically, on capturing a lot of that," David Holmquist, the district's chief operating officer, said in an interview.
The first complaint against Guevara came in 1995, when the teacher's aide was working part time at the 37th Street Early Education Center in the Exposition Park area. A 9-year-old student reported that he had taken her into a closet and asked her to lower her pants, according to a sheriff's report contained in court records.
The principal reported the incident to both L.A. Unified and the Los Angeles Police Department, according to police documents. But the records say the girl gave inconsistent accounts. Guevara, who denied the allegation, was never charged with a crime.
He was cleared to return to work at the same school, according to court documents.
Several years later, he was hired full time at the Miramonte Early Education Center near Huntington Park. District administrators knew of the 1995 accusation, but no one informed school leaders, according to an associate principal's 2008 deposition.
In 2002, a 6-year-old accused "Mr. Ricardo" of repeatedly touching her groin during class one day. Guevara was removed from the school and assigned to a district office where he had no access to children, while sheriff's deputies investigated, according to the deposition of Elizabeth Blackwell, the associate principal.
Blackwell supported him during the investigation because she thought he was a good employee, she told sheriff's investigators, according to their 2003 report filed in court.
After initially denying that he had touched the student, Guevara admitted he may have accidentally touched her crotch when several male students jumped on his back, according to the sheriff's report. Detectives forwarded the case to the district attorney's office. But with no witnesses besides the child, who over time mixed up details of what had occurred, prosecutors declined to pursue the case.
Guevara returned to Miramonte to work with children.
His career as a teacher's aide ended only on Nov. 6, 2003, when a Miramonte parent reported that she had seen Guevara reach into the back of a girl's pants on the playground. The report prompted the two other girls to come forward with similar allegations.
In 2005, a jury convicted Guevara of multiple counts of lewd acts with a child.
Blackwell "told me she felt really bad that she allowed [Guevara] to be near the girls," the sheriff's investigator wrote in his report. In deposition testimony, the administrator said she would have supervised Guevara more closely had she known of the allegations dating to 1995.
Teacher gets a memo
Even when they know about sexual abuse complaints, some school leaders rely on police to substantiate them without thoroughly following up themselves.
In 2002, a student reported that Michael McMurray, a fourth-grade teacher at Plainview Avenue Elementary School in Tujunga, had on several occasions forced a girl to sit on his lap and pose for a camera, according to school officials' later depositions and a report of suspected child abuse.
Police arrived on campus to investigate but concluded that "there was nothing there," and recommended that the matter be addressed by administrators, according to the principal's later deposition.
After learning that police had been called, McMurray "fled from the school" in the middle of the day, telling his bosses later that he had had an anxiety attack, according to a police detective's deposition in 2007. School administrators did not report McMurray's behavior to police at the time, the detective said, and officers did not interview the teacher.
Principal Pamela Worden and her vice principal gave McMurray a memo telling him not to make videotapes, according to her 2007 deposition. Worden testified that she never asked to see the contents of McMurray's camera "because the idea that it would be improper photos didn't occur to us."
Through a district spokeswoman, Worden declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation
Two years later, during class, McMurray wrote a note to a fourth-grader on a Post-it, according to police documents.
"Are you comfortable with me putting my hand on your knee?" he asked. He drew two boxes for her to check: "Yes" or "No."
He asked a follow-up question: "Promise not to tell any one?"
The girl checked no to both questions, but he rubbed her leg anyway, according to a Los Angeles police child abuse report filed in October 2004.
McMurray, who molested her on at least two occasions, later pleaded no contest to sexual abuse of a child and was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Ten other girls stepped forward, complaining that they too had been touched inappropriately by McMurray, but the charges were dismissed as part of a plea agreement. At least three girls have sued the district.
The girl who received the Post-it notes is now 13. Traumatized and fearful of being teased, she has struggled in school and is failing most of her classes, her grandmother said.
"She has a lot of anger."
District tightens policies
The year 2006 was supposed to have been a turning point for the district.
As a result of two disturbing cases, officials tightened policies on allowing accused molesters back into classrooms and underscored the importance of alerting administrators and school leaders to the potential risk.
James Marlo Duffin, a fourth-grade teacher at Middleton Elementary School in Huntington Park, had been investigated in May 2001 for allegedly touching a girl's buttocks.
After prosecutors declined to take the case, Duffin's principal wrote him a letter ordering him to use better judgment and avoid putting himself in situations where students or parents could question his intent.
Duffin returned to the classroom. Almost two years later, while teaching at Gulf Avenue Elementary School in Wilmington, he was accused of touching a girl's buttocks and molesting two other students.
In 2006, he was convicted of a lewd act involving one of the girls and sentenced to six years behind bars. The family of one of the other accusers sued the district and settled for $90,000.
It is not clear whether Duffin's new principal had been told of the prior allegation.
Alarmed, Mike Lansing, then a school board member representing the area, said he met with district staff numerous times to strengthen the teacher transfer policy.
"We had to figure out how to keep people like him off campus . . . or to inform leadership about an employee's past," Lansing said.
That year the district adjusted its policies to require that campus administrators be informed when an employee was transferred as a result of sexual abuse allegations -- though principals still don't get the employee's file containing his or her history of such accusations. Moreover, the district stressed that if it determined on its own that sexual abuse had occurred, it would move to fire the employee regardless of what law enforcement decided.
Also in 2006, the district paid a nearly $1.2-million settlement to a boy allegedly molested by a special education aide at Germain Street Elementary School in Chatsworth.
Even as he was applying to be a trainee at the district in 2001, the aide, Paul Thompson, was under investigation by police for allegedly raping a 10-year-old boy at a group home where he had worked. Prosecutors ultimately declined to pursue the case, citing a lack of evidence.
A district background check failed to pick up on the complaint, according to later deposition testimony by a district official. Nor did the district notice that Thompson had forged a job-reference letter from his former employer at the group home.
Once hired at Haynes Elementary School in West Hills, Thompson met a 4-year-old with a learning disability, according to his mother's testimony in a later criminal case. Thompson began tutoring the boy after school and also baby-sat him.
"I trusted [Thompson]. He was endorsed by L.A. Unified School District," the victim's mother testified.
When the boy transferred to Germain in 2002, Thompson followed as his full-time aide.
Between July 2002 and March 2003, Thompson repeatedly forced the boy to perform sexual acts, according to amended criminal charges in 2005 alleging eight counts of lewd acts with a child.
After a jury acquitted Thompson on five counts and could not agree on the other three, a mistrial was declared. In a second trial that ended in November 2005, the jury acquitted him of all remaining charges.
Within a week, Thompson was reassigned to Blythe Street Elementary School in Reseda to be a special education aide to a female second-grader, according to his later testimony. It is unclear whether his new principal was told of the prior allegations.
Shortly after his arrival on campus, however, an attorney for the district had Thompson pulled from the classroom because of concerns about his history. District leaders then reminded personnel administrators to warn principals about employees who had been accused of a sex offense before they were returned to the classroom.
Meanwhile, the family of the Germain student had sued the district in 2004, contending that the boy suffered from nightmares and sometimes refused to kiss his mother, fearing he still had Thompson's germs in his mouth. After the case was settled in 2006, the mother said she got a call from an L.A. Unified lawyer asking her to help the district fire Thompson by testifying in a disciplinary hearing.
"It was hard to do after all they put us through in the civil" case, she said. "But I just wanted to make sure it would never happen again."
Thompson was ultimately fired. The district cited his forged letter of recommendation and "molestation" of a student, records show. He could not be reached for comment.
A public outcry
Based on the district's own policies and pronouncements, the actions of Steve Thomas Rooney should have been thoroughly scrutinized by the district in 2007.
That year, before he was transferred to Markham Middle School as assistant principal, Rooney had been arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. He allegedly brandished a handgun at the stepfather of a student who attended Foshay Learning Center in the Exposition Park area, where Rooney had been a dean.
Police told senior district officials that they had found evidence in Rooney's home of a possible sexual relationship between Rooney and the student, police later told The Times.
But the student, 17, did not cooperate with the LAPD investigation, police said. No charges were filed.
Without conducting their own investigation, L.A. Unified officials reassigned Rooney to Markham after a few months.
In 2008, Rooney was arrested for allegedly kidnapping and sexually assaulting a 13-year old female student from Markham at his home.
Since then, he has been charged with various sexual crimes involving four girls, two former students at Foshay and two at Markham. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for later this month. He has pleaded not guilty.
The second arrest prompted a public outcry. After apologizing, then-Supt. David L. Brewer issued an order making the superintendent personally responsible for deciding whether someone accused of molestation should be returned to a classroom. He also ordered improved procedures for notifying principals of new employees' past misconduct and pledged to work more closely with law enforcement.
The mother of Thompson's alleged victim is skeptical of the district's promises. When a reporter talked to her earlier this year about the Rooney case, she wept.
"All I wanted was to effect change," she said, referring to her cooperation with the district. But when she learned of the latest allegations against Rooney, "that's when I realized I have failed."