A former assistant principal who L.A. Unified officials knew was under suspicion of having sex with a student but was transferred to another campus where he found more victims, pleaded no contest Thursday to molesting three teenage girls and having unlawful sex with a fourth minor.
Under a plea deal, Steve Thomas Rooney agreed to be sentenced next month to eight years in state prison after being convicted of having sex with a student when she was 15 to 17 years old and molesting a second girl at Foshay Learning Center before being transferred to Markham Middle School in Watts, where he molested two more girls. The girls ranged from 13 to 15 years in age.
Dressed in a black suit with black-rimmed glasses, Rooney clasped his hands as he stood to enter his plea. Asked by the prosecutor if he understood the plea would result in an eight-year prison sentence, Rooney, 40, replied, "Yes, madam." At one point, he told the prosecutor, "It is just that I am a little nervous."
The case came to highlight serious deficiencies in how the Los Angeles Unified School District handled problem employees. Rooney, who was originally charged with more than a dozen felony molestation violations related to the four girls, will have to register as a violent sex offender and serve at least 85% of his eight-year sentence.
"This means he's appropriately punished for the horrible acts he committed," said L.A. County Deputy Dist. Atty. Darci Lanphere.
Rooney was arrested last year on suspicion of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old Markham student, sparking public outrage and calls for reform when it was discovered that the LAPD had told district officials in 2007 that he was suspected of having sex with a Foshay student. Police told senior district officials that they had found evidence in Rooney's home of the sexual relationship.
After initially assigning Rooney to a desk job at a non-school site, district officials transferred him to Markham when prosecutors did not file charges. L.A. Unified officials did not follow district policy, which required an independent investigation of abuse allegations before reassigning him.
After Rooney's arrest, then-Supt. David L. Brewer apologized and issued an order making the superintendent personally responsible for deciding whether someone accused of molestation should be returned to a classroom. He also ordered improved procedures for notifying principals of new employees' past misconduct.
A dean at Foshay Learning Center was placed on three years' probation after being convicted of failing to turn over evidence related to Rooney's sexual relationship with the 15-year-old student. Alan Hubbard hid a romantic scrapbook prepared by Rooney's first victim, and prosecutors say he discouraged her from telling police she had had sex with the administrator.
Three of the victims are now suing the school district for failure to protect them.
"The girls are relieved they will not be subject to cross- examination as they were at the preliminary hearing," said their attorney, Ricardo Antonio Perez. "They're all very much affected psychologically."