Claims of semen-tainted flutes roil schools across Southern California

For years, hundreds of children in the Fullerton School District have taken part in a seemingly heartwarming program called “Flutes Across The World.”

The initiative aims to connect young students in Southern California with underprivileged counterparts in the Philippines through a simple round of arts and crafts, according to Robert Pletka, the school district’s superintendent.

During the classes, students were shown how to make colorful flutes out of PVC pipe, Pletka said. Then they would write personal notes to students half a world away that would be folded inside the instruments.

But in the past 10 days, the program — which is said to have collaborated with schools throughout Southern California and large national charity organizations — became ensnared in a grotesque scandal that has left parents and educators horrified.

Late last week, the U.S. Postal Service and the California Department of Justice launched an investigation to determine if some of the flutes that were delivered to schools earlier this year had been contaminated with semen, leaving parents panicked and school officials struggling to determine how many students may have come in contact with the instruments.

In recent days, officials issued warnings to parents in the Los Angeles Unified, Saugus Union, Capistrano Unified, Fountain Valley, Culver City, Newport-Mesa and Fullerton school districts, according to statements released by school officials. In those warnings, school officials said they had been contacted by federal and state investigators who were trying to determine if a “music specialist” had provided contaminated flutes during presentations given to young students within their districts.

The person did not work for any of the affected school districts, and was described as an outside contractor and music performer in several school district news releases.

No children have been sickened as a result of the nauseating discovery, and it remains unclear if any of the possibly contaminated instruments actually wound up in the possession of students, according to school officials in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Public health officials have said it is highly unlikely that a sexually transmitted disease or other illness could be contracted by touching dried semen.

News of the possibly contaminated flutes left parents in several school districts shaken and disturbed this week.

“It’s disgusting and it’s horrible,” said Tracey Taber, whose children attend classes at Sonora Elementary School in Costa Mesa. “And it’s heartbreaking, across the board.”

Stacia Crane, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service, said Friday that no one has been arrested in the case, but declined to comment further because of the active investigation. She also declined to identify the music performer described in the letters issued by school officials.

Local police have asked parents whose children received flutes from the program to place them in a sealed brown paper bag and bring them to the nearest police or sheriff’s station.

“Flutes Across The World” has collaborated with a number of large national charity organizations — including the American Cancer Society and the Ronald McDonald House — as well as performing arts centers in Orange County and child advocacy groups in the Philippines and Haiti, according to a website detailing its origins.

The program also offered camp and retreat workshops for students, according to the website, and aimed to promote “flute and wind music of indigenous cultures and people around the globe.”

A spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society in Los Angeles said Friday that the organization has no record of ever working with “Flutes Across The World.” An e-mail sent to a spokeswoman for the Ronald McDonald House was not returned.

Calls and e-mails to the chief executive of the organization were not immediately returned. “Flutes Across The World” was registered as a domestic nonprofit organization based in Ojai in 2013, public records show. Attempts to contact other people listed in the company’s incorporation documents were unsuccessful.

School officials have also said they have had trouble determining if, and when, the organization provided lessons in their district.

“It was difficult for our district to try to pin down what exactly are we looking for as far as this individual,” said Ryan Burris, the chief communications officer for the Capistrano Unified School District.

Late Thursday, Capistrano Unified School officials said they had confirmed that the flute program had not been held in the district in recent months.

In Fullerton, Pletka said nearly 130 students 11 to 12 may have been involved with the program at Rolling Hills Elementary School this year, though it is unclear if they came in contact with possibly contaminated flutes.

In a statement, the Saugus Union school district said the person under investigation had either taught students to build flutes or had delivered other presentations to roughly two dozen classes since 2013.

The other affected schools include Courregus Elementary School in Fountain Valley and Sonora Elementary School in Costa Mesa, school officials said. LAUSD officials said one school may have been involved in the flute program, but did not name the facility.

Pletka said the person who made the presentations in the Fullerton School District came highly recommended from members of the Orange County arts community and “was associated with some pretty reputable organizations who also do background checks on their people.”

Times Community News staff writer Bradley Zint and Los Angeles Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.

james.queally@latimes.com

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.

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UPDATES:

10:45 a.m.: This article was updated to include Culver City among the school districts that might be affected.

This article was originally published at 6 a.m.

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