Venice high school sex allegations not so clear-cut

Authorities are still working to figure out the details of recent Venice High sex assault allegations

Nearly a week since the high-profile arrests of Venice High School students on sex crime allegations, authorities acknowledged Wednesday that they are still trying to sort out exactly what happened and that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the students.

Los Angeles police have now arrested 12 of the 14 boys whom authorities said they wanted in connection with the incidents, which dated back more than a year. Of those, 11 have been cited or booked and released; one is being held in juvenile hall.

Los Angeles Police Department officials said that the two girls allegedly victimized have been interviewed at length and that no others have surfaced. Police said some sex crimes are alleged to have occurred on campus.

Los Angeles Unified School District officials held a meeting Wednesday evening at the campus to address parents' concerns about school safety and other issues.

“This campus is a safe campus. It is a beautiful campus. It does not require a lot of law enforcement interaction,” school district Police Chief Steven Zipperman said.

Fonna Bishop, the interim principal, told the 150-plus parents present that the events since Friday were “unsettling” but that it's now time to “begin the healing process.”

She also praised the students at the high school. “Students are friendly, respectful, dedicated, amazing young people,” she said.

Some parents, though defending the school, said in interviews that they want to hear the facts of the case.

“There's the boys' side, the girls' side, and there's the truth,” said Mary Almanza, the parent of a junior. “I would like to hear everything before making a judgment.”

And Mario Jauregui, who has a daughter in ninth grade, said the school is doing a good job since Friday but that “there's three sides to this story.”

Sixteen-year-old junior Debbie Trejo said her sympathies lay with some of the accused boys. “I have classes with some of them and they are gentlemen and I don't think they would be the type to do that,” she said.

Parents at the meeting submitted questions and comments on index cards. “It is well known that the bathrooms are used for different things,” wrote one, and marijuana sometimes can be smelled on campus.

An administrator promised that such issues would be looked into.

Officials also said additional campus aides would be hired.

The investigation involves more than just behavior among students. Photos and possibly videos were taken and circulated on social media.

Nearly a week since the first 10 arrests took place on and off campus, authorities still are sorting out which students are most seriously implicated and how to handle a mix of behavior among minors that allegedly consisted of consensual and forced sexual contact.

“Our office has 60 days from the date of the citation to file a case,” said Greg Risling, a spokesman for the L.A. County district attorney's office.

The office declined to file charges in the one case submitted to it so far.

No matter the age of the students, producing or distributing sexual conduct in a video or photograph online would violate child pornography laws, said attorney Dmitry Gorin, who prosecuted juvenile sex cases and now works in criminal defense.

And if there is evidence that an image or video was also used to coerce someone into sexual conduct, then prosectors could pursue rape charges, Gorin said.

Sources have confirmed that the investigation is looking into allegations that the girls were pressured into sex by threats to their reputation. Police said there is evidence that several boys were present during some of the illegal acts.

The punishment for such crimes, however, varies greatly between adults and minors.

In juvenile cases, incarceration and other forms of punishment are much less likely than they are in adult court.

“The focus is really on rehabilitation and not punishment,” Gorin said.

However, more serious crimes, like rape, give prosecutors the discretion to prosecute minors as adults, Gorin said.

The boys range in age from 14 to 17.

Experts agreed that determining guilt is complicated because, under the law, no minor can give consent to a sexual act.

Often, prosecutors decline to pursue charges against minors who engage in sexual conduct when there is no coercion, duress or force, or impairment from drugs or alcohol, said Leonard Levine, a defense attorney who specializes in sex crime cases.

The students also face potential discipline from the L.A. Unified School District, regardless of whether charges are pursued.

“Each student is or will be going through a process with the disciplinary unit to determine whether or not a recommendation for expulsion will be sought,” said Thomas Waldman, a spokesman for the district.

The Board of Education has the final say on whether a student will be expelled. Even then, the district must make provisions for a student to continue with his or her education.

Jan Davis, who heads operations for schools in the area, said, “We are gathering information as we speak.... Each student is being handled individually.”

Times staff writer Kate Mather contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


10:09 p.m.: This post was updated with details from Wednesday evening's meeting at the high school.

This post was originally published at 6:56 p.m.