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L.A. educator in sex case faced earlier investigation

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles school officials transferred an assistant principal to a Watts middle school just months after he had been removed from a previous school where he was investigated for allegedly having sex with an underage student and pulling a gun on her stepfather.

Last week, the assistant principal, Steve Thomas Rooney, 39, allegedly molested a student at the new campus, Markham Middle School. He was arrested and charged with five counts of forcible lewd acts on a child, stemming from allegations that he sexually assaulted the 13-year-old girl March 1 and at least one other occasion.

Los Angeles Unified School District officials declined to comment Wednesday about how Rooney had been reassigned to Markham last fall, saying they are conducting an internal investigation and citing a policy barring them from speaking publicly about cases under those circumstances.

District policy requires officials to conduct their own investigation into employee misconduct regardless of whether the allegations result in criminal charges. Officials would not say Wednesday whether such an inquiry occurred in the earlier case.

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Parents, students and district employees said they were outraged that, given his history, Rooney had been allowed to continue working with children.

“The district could have prevented all this,” said Elvette Hodge, father of a seventh-grader at Markham and a member of the school site council. “My daughter said to me, ‘How can they put teachers like this in school and expect students to do better?’ ”

Reaction was similar at Fremont High School, where Rooney previously worked as an assistant principal.

“I can’t believe he was put in another school,” said Jenna Washington, Fremont’s magnet coordinator. “It was hard enough for us at Fremont. In South Los Angeles, the district knows a lot of parents are not going to complain. They wouldn’t have placed him in a West Los Angeles school or a Valley school. Or they’d have parents out there picketing.”

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School board member Richard Vladovic, whose district includes Markham, said that he had not been briefed about Rooney’s case but that the district’s response should not depend solely on whether law enforcement pursues a case.

“Just because police didn’t prosecute doesn’t mean an employee’s actions didn’t violate trust or professional standards. We could still take action,” he said in an interview Wednesday. Vladovic, who was both a principal and senior district administrator before retiring, added that in such a case, “I would go after a person literally and try to fire him.”

Los Angeles Police Department officials acknowledged this week that Rooney had been investigated on suspicion of statutory rape of a 17-year-old student in 2007, more than a year before the molestation of the 13-year-old allegedly occurred.

The earlier case, they said, came to light after Rooney and the girl’s stepfather got into an argument in January 2007 and the stepfather alleged that Rooney pulled a gun. Rooney was briefly arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, but LAPD investigators were unable to prove the allegation, and he was released with no charges filed, police said.

The investigation, however, did uncover evidence that Rooney had been having a sexual relationship with the stepdaughter for about a year before the argument. But since the girl would not cooperate with the investigation, and her 18th birthday passed before it was concluded, charges were not filed in that case either, according to a search warrant. (Details of the warrant were first reported by KTTV Channel 11).

After the arrest in the gun case, L.A. Unified officials transferred Rooney to a “non-school” setting. When it became clear he would not be prosecuted, they sent him to Markham.

L.A. Unified spokeswoman Susan Cox said this week that the district is conducting an internal investigation into its actions surrounding Rooney.

She declined, however, to describe those actions in detail. Cox would not comment, for example, on whether L.A. Unified performed its own probe of the allegations against Rooney or on what basis he had been reassigned to Markham.

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In general, when school employees are arrested, district officials wait until the criminal inquiry is completed before conducting their own, they said.

In the interim, they said, employees under a cloud can be suspended or transferred to a district office where there are no students. Rooney was not suspended. Instead, he served six months in an office job before his reassignment to Markham.

Rooney, 39, was hired in 2000 as a teacher at Peary Middle School, an L.A. Unified campus in Gardena. He then taught at Foshay Learning Center, before becoming an assistant principal at Fremont High, both in South L.A.

According to a search warrant affidavit filed in connection with his arrest, Rooney was working at Fremont on Jan. 1, 2007, the day he drove with the 17-year-old Foshay student to the home of her stepfather and confronted the man about his treatment of her.

According to the court document, Rooney allegedly pulled a black steel revolver from his pants during the argument. However, investigators later received conflicting accounts from witnesses, including the stepdaughter, who insisted Rooney had brandished only a flashlight, according to a search warrant. Prosecutors declined to file charges.

But while questioning family members about the confrontation, detectives began to suspect that Rooney’s relationship with the girl was not just that of teacher and student, according to a search warrant.

A subsequent search of his downtown apartment produced photos of the girl, including one Rooney had kept in a book on his nightstand, and a pair of girls’ tennis shoes. Inside his computer was a folder called “My Baby” with photos of the girl, according to the documents. The girl later said she had a yearlong sexual relationship with Rooney. She refused to testify, police said in a search warrant.

A high-level LAPD official who declined to be identified said Wednesday that school district officials had been briefed by police about their findings after the investigation was complete. The district would not comment.

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Since Rooney’s arrest on the molestation charge, the LAPD has reopened its inquiry into his prior activities, said Capt. Fabian Lizzaraga, head of the Juvenile Division.

“There may be additional victims out there, and we are appealing for anyone to come forward,” Lizzaraga said. He would not elaborate.

Rooney is being held in lieu of $1-million bail. He could not be reached for comment.

Several former colleagues spoke well of Rooney, saying they had seen no improprieties.

“I was on the committee that hired him” at Fremont, said the school’s union chapter chairman Mathew Taylor. “He was a dean at Foshay, and we weren’t made aware of his troubles. Overall they found him to be a really good guy.” Except for a temper that could cause problems, Taylor said, “I found him to be a good guy too.”

The accusations against Rooney have focused new scrutiny on the district’s practice of requiring campuses to take teachers and administrators not of their choosing, so-called must-place employees. Critics say the worst-performing schools often end up with employees who are ineffective or worse.

Markham had been required to take Rooney to fill an interim opening created when an administrator went on leave, sources said. Markham administrators told investigators they did not know of Rooney’s history at the time.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, an advocate for a parent group chastised officials.

“The parents are really tired of must-place personnel,” said Kelly Kane of the Parents Union. “We no longer want the garbage to be dumped there. They trusted him because you placed him there.”

A Fremont junior, who declined to give her name, said, “If this was a private school or somewhere else in the district, where people really care, then I don’t think this would have happened.”

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richard.winton@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

Times staff writers Francisco Vara-Orta and Jill Leovy contributed to this report.


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