As a teacher in an impoverished, gang-ridden area of South Los Angeles, Rigoberto Ruelas always reached out to the toughest kids. He would tutor them on weekends and after school, visit their homes, encourage them to aim high and go to college.
The fifth-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School was so passionate about his mission that, school authorities say, he had near perfect attendance in 14 years on the job.
So when Ruelas, 39, failed to show up for work last week, his colleagues instantly began to worry. And their worst fears were confirmed Sunday morning. In the Big Tujunga Canyon area of the Angeles National Forest, a search-and-rescue team with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department discovered Ruelas’ body in a ravine about 100 feet below a nearby bridge.
The Los Angeles County Coroner determined he had committed suicide.
Ruelas’ death stunned Miramonte students, teachers and parents. Many left hand-written notes, flowers, candles and white balloons at an impromptu memorial. By evening, dozens gathered to light candles, sing Spanish-language hymns and recite the Rosary. Ruelas’ family, too, came to the school and slowly walked along the memorial wall, thanking parents and reading the messages.
Ruelas did not leave a suicide note, authorities said, and it remained unclear why he took his life.
Teachers union President A.J. Duffy said his staff was told by Ruelas’ family that the teacher was depressed about his score on a teacher-rating database posted by The Times on its website. The newspaper analyzed seven years of student test scores in English and math to determine how much students’ performance improved under about 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers. Based on The Times’ findings, Ruelas was rated “average” in his ability to raise students’ English scores and “less effective” in his ability to raise math scores. Overall, he was rated slightly “less effective” than his peers.
“Despite The Times’ analysis, and all other measures, this was a really good teacher,” said Duffy, who called on the newspaper to take down the database. Many parents also asked that Ruelas’ page on The Times’ website be taken down.
Ruelas’ brother, Alejandro Ruelas, told The Times that the family is boycotting the newspaper and would not comment.
The Times said it extends “our sympathy to his family, students, friends and colleagues,” Nancy Sullivan, Times vice-president of communications, said in a statement.
The newspaper published the database, she said, “because it bears directly on the performance of public employees who provide an important service, and in the belief that parents and the public have a right to judge the data for themselves.”
Miramonte Principal Martin Sandoval described Ruelas, a South Gate native, as a caring teacher who loved the outdoors. For the teachers and staff, he organized volleyball games at the beach, hiking trips and bonfires, said Carmen Jimenez, 24, a Miramonte nurse assistant.
“He was a very happy individual,” Sandoval said. “He grew up in this community and he felt a desire and need to help this community.”
Andromeda Palma, a 13-year-old eighth-grader, stopped by after school to leave a balloon at the memorial. She said she used to struggle at math, but he taught her to succeed and not to give up.
“He told me it is not about where you are from but if you don’t go to school you are nothing in this world,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Now I am doing real good because of him.”
Sandoval said like all teachers, Ruelas apparently felt pressure to perform well. “Things that were happening in the district, budget cuts, testing, seem to put us all under the microscope,” Sandoval said.
Many staff members saw Ruelas at a school celebration on Friday, Sept. 17. While some said he seemed normal, others said he was distracted and upset.
“He wasn’t smiling like he always smiled,” said Maria Jimenez, a school aide. “Other parents noticed it too and were asking what was wrong.”
Crisis counselors were on campus to help students or teachers who sought help. District Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, along with union and school leaders, met with teachers and staff early Monday, and about 100 parents turned out later for an emotional meeting with school officials.
“Mr. Ruelas was a passionate and caring teacher, who put his students first,” Cortines said in a statement. “He made a difference in the lives of so many in his classroom, and by staying after the bell rang to tutor students.”
A community memorial service is scheduled for Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Presentation Catholic Church in Los Angeles.
Times staff writers Teresa Watanabe and Robert Faturechi contributed to this report.