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O.C. Schoolgirl May Not Have Meant Baby to Die

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 15-year-old honors student accused of drowning her newborn baby in a school restroom toilet may not have knowingly killed the child, according to an autopsy report issued Wednesday.

The mother was arrested on suspicion of murder in connection with the death of the baby, a full-term boy weighing 6 pounds, after she gave birth in a girls restroom at Santiago High School Tuesday morning, but police and prosecutors say it may take two weeks to decide whether to bring criminal charges against her. The girl is a Vietnamese-American, and her culture censures unwed mothers.

Preliminary autopsy results confirmed that the baby was not premature and that drowning was the cause of death, Garden Grove Police Sgt. Kevin Raney said.

“There’s no indication that she drowned it” intentionally, Raney said. “She delivered into the toilet. The indications are that the baby drowned in the toilet.”

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Contrary to early reports that no one knew about the girl’s pregnancy, several classmates and a guidance counselor at the school said Wednesday that they had known. But they said the her baggy clothes, silence and evasive answers to the counselors’ queries left them believing that the pregnancy was in its early stages.

Some of them had tried to help her, but what they told her to do was the one thing she apparently could not bring herself to do: tell her parents.

One schoolmate, a Vietnamese-American who asked not to be identified, said she approached a relative of the girl about six weeks ago after noticing the pregnancy.

“I told her, ‘You’ve got to do something, you’ve got to tell (her) parents,’ ” the classmate said. The relative, the classmate said, responded that “they’d be mad for the rest of their life.”

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“She didn’t tell anybody she was pregnant,” said schoolmate Richard Pan, 17, “but most of us knew.”

When the rumors reached counselor Carolyn Rust a week before Thanksgiving, she called the girl, a sophomore, into her office.

“She didn’t look pregnant to me,” Rust said. “I thought, the way the conversation went, that she was newly pregnant--a month, two months.”

Rust said she urged the girl to tell her parents.

“She was afraid. But every kid is afraid. Her reaction wasn’t any different from any other kid’s reaction . . . .

“I told her, ‘You have to tell your parents,’ Rust said, “and I explained all the reasons. Could she do it? If she couldn’t do it, I said I would be happy to have her parents come in, or go to her home with her. . . . She never came back.”

The veil of silence kept adults in the dark. The girl’s parents did not know until they were contacted by police, authorities said. The parents could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. John Conley said prosecutors will not charge the girl with first-degree murder because there is no evidence of premeditation. But, he said, prosecutors are considering lesser homicide charges such as second-degree murder and manslaughter. If evidence suggests that the girl did not know the baby would die, Conley said, there may be no criminal charges at all.

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Several other female students were in the restroom at the time but did not know what was happening until they heard an infant’s cry from behind a closed stall door, Raney said.

The students ran to notify the school nurse, but by the time police and paramedics arrived, Raney said, the baby was dead.

The girl had “lost a lot of blood,” Garden Grove Police Lt. Chuck Gibbs said. “She could easily have died. She’s not a big person in stature.”

The girl, who is in protective custody, was reported in stable condition Wednesday night in a guarded room in the maternity ward at UCI Medical Center in Orange. She was to be transferred to Orange County Juvenile Hall today and will remain in protective custody, Gibbs said. One of authorities’ fears is that, should she be released to her parents, she may run away.

Unwed mothers are considered an acute embarrassment among many Vietnamese, who prize virginity.

“It is taboo in our culture to talk about sex,” said Long C. Le, a Vietnamese-born English teacher at Fountain Valley High School nearby.

“According to the tradition of the culture of Vietnam, the parents automatically cut off all relations with the girl if they find out she is pregnant and not married,” Le said. “They usually kick the girl out of the house. It’s that bad.”

Richard Pan, who is also Vietnamese-American, agreed. “Usually the girl gets kicked out of the house or they’ll make her marry the guy.”

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Le said young Vietnamese-Americans are torn between the conservative sexual mores of Vietnam and the permissive ones of the United States.

“The older Vietnamese are not changing as fast as their children are,” Le said. “That’s why we have a conflict.”

The girl completed the high school’s required health education course this fall, Santiago Principal Bob O’Higgins said. The course covers sexuality and reproduction, among other topics. She also had attended Garden Grove junior high schools, where more basic information about sex is taught, he said.

But the Vietnamese-American schoolmate, an 18-year-old senior, said Wednesday that she had taken the same courses and that she herself did not know much about birth control, would not know how to obtain it, and that she assumed that the young mother did not know these things either.

“Our parents don’t teach us about sex,” the schoolmate said. “All they teach you is to be a good kid.”

The young woman said she went home Tuesday and told her mother about what had happened.

“She said: ‘That’s why you have to be careful with the guys.’ She said, ‘Don’t make us feel ashamed.’ ”

The baby’s supposed father, also a Santiago High sophomore, has been interviewed by police, and a blood test has been taken to confirm paternity, Gibbs said.

He said the police investigation did not address Vietnamese cultural attitudes about sex, since that was not considered germane.

“We don’t see a cultural issue at all,” Gibbs said.

The girl was described as shy, studious and well-liked but as someone who had few close friends and who kept her troubles to herself.

“She was just extremely shy,” said Bob Crabb, one of her teachers. “She would barely look up--only when spoken to.”

“She was a good kid, terrific grades, a neat kid,” Rust said. “But she never talks. No in-depth kind of conversations. I drew everything out of her that I could.”

Rust and school officials said they were dismayed that they had been unable to prevent such a tragedy.

O’Higgins said the district has been discussing whether to adopt a peer counseling program, and he said the sex education program will be re-evaluated.

“You try to put things in ‘the appropriate’ grade level,” O’Higgins said, “but in some cases, obviously, it’s never soon enough.”

There is no doubt that sex education “is a sensitive issue in any culture,” he said, “and we’re a school of mixed cultures.”

About 40% of Santiago’s 1,830 students are Latino, 30% are Vietnamese, 25% Anglo and 5% are members of other ethnic groups. “We have 30 languages spoken somewhere on campus,” O’Higgins said.

O’Higgins told the students Wednesday morning about what had happened. Students and teachers said that all day, no other subject was discussed.

Crabb, who had had the mother in a journalism class last year, tried to explain to his psychology class why reporters and television cameras were invading the campus.

“This is kind of a weird situation,” he told them. “I’ve been your age before. . . . I’ve heard of girls getting pregnant and girls having abortions, but I’ve never heard of anything like this.

“The most amazing thing was that she needed some help and guidance, and didn’t get it.”

A girl in the front row responded: “I don’t think she meant to do it. I think she was just scared.”

Police and prosecutors could remember no similar case in Orange County, although they said that teen-age mothers have abandoned their babies and have been prosecuted.

“If the person leaves the child outside to die, that would be murder,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Conley said. “If a person not using good judgment leaves the child by a dumpster with no intent to kill, that could be a form of manslaughter or child endangerment.”

Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this report.


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