Flutes at 2 local schools may have been contaminated with semen; O.C. experts downplay health danger

As state and federal officials investigate how batches of plastic flutes believed to be contaminated with semen were distributed this past spring to schools in Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley and elsewhere in Southern California, health experts in Orange County said Monday that exposure to the flutes likely posed little risk to students.

Officials from the Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s Sonora Elementary School and the Fountain Valley School District’s Courreges Elementary said in emails to parents that they believe they are among schools in 14 districts possibly affected.

Authorities are investigating a music specialist suspected of contaminating musical instruments with semen. The suspect has not been identified.

An email sent to the Sonora Elementary community Friday night said the district believes exposure to the flutes was limited to four classrooms. The instruments were made of PVC pipes.

A spokeswoman for the Orange County Health Care Agency said Monday that based on public information, Dr. Matthew Zahn, medical director of epidemiology and assessment, “believes the situation does not present a health concern.”

Zahn reached out to the schools involved, the agency said.

Dr. Carl Schultz, a professor emeritus of emergency medicine and public health at UC Irvine, said some sexually transmitted diseases can be spread through semen but that the risk of infection in this situation is likely very low. Sexually transmitted diseases are time-sensitive and don’t tolerate changes in temperature or drying out, he said.

“Unless this guy smeared his semen on the flute and handed it to the kids right away, there’s really not a risk of transferring anything,” Schultz said.

The Health Care Agency suggested that concerned families consult their primary medical providers about an individual risk assessment.

Fountain Valley School District Supt. Mark Johnson said in an announcement last week that fifth-graders at Courreges Elementary received the potentially contaminated flutes in June through an independent contractor’s music enrichment program called Flutes Across the World.

Courreges is believed to be the only Fountain Valley school affected, Johnson said.

Flutes Across the World came to Newport-Mesa through the district’s partnership with the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, according to Newport-Mesa spokeswoman Annette Franco.

That partnership is on hold for the time being, she added.

Flutes Across the World’s website was down Monday. In an archived version of the site, the organization described itself as a nonprofit based in Ojai.

“We understand that this is a deeply upsetting and difficult situation for our parents and that it may be frustrating to not have more details,” Franco said in a statement Monday. “We are giving our impacted parents as much information as possible, without compromising the open and active investigation.

“Please know that our priority and focus is to work closely with the impacted parents and to fully cooperate with law enforcement. We are waiting for direction from the law enforcement agencies on next steps, if any.”

Franco said a Sonora parent meeting was held Sunday and that another is scheduled for Monday.

Newport-Mesa trustee Martha Fluor said federal authorities told the district that the suspect took the flutes home overnight and then returned them to students.

“We take our students and their safety very seriously,” she said. “That’s our utmost concern.”

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is leading the investigation with support from the California Department of Justice, according to the California attorney general’s press office.

“As part of the investigation, we are working with local law enforcement and school districts to collect instruments for the California Department of Justice to process,” the press office said in a statement.

It isn’t clear why the Postal Inspection Service launched the investigation. When asked for details, the agency said it doesn’t comment about ongoing investigations.

In a statement Monday, the service said: “Protecting children from crimes of sexual abuse and exploitation is a priority of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. We remain steadfast in our efforts to investigate, apprehend and assist in the prosecution of those who seek to exploit children.”

Members of the Fountain Valley school board declined to comment directly to the Daily Pilot. A school administrator, speaking on behalf of the board, said Monday that the district had no information to add since Friday’s announcement from Johnson.

Susan Castellanos was Courreges’ PTA president last school year. She said Monday that her son, who was then in fifth grade and participating in Flutes Across the World, has a decorated flute from the program. She will hand it over to authorities to help with their investigation, she said.

“It’s just so disheartening,” Castellanos said of the case.

She said the 125 fifth-graders from Courreges who participated in the program last year donated flutes that were sent to other countries.

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint


UPDATES:

5 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Dr. Carl Schultz and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

This article was originally published at 3:10 p.m.

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