State law may be tying district’s hand in dealing with group of 10-year-old bullies

A message on the marquee sign states that Spirit Day is every Wednesday at California Elementary School in Costa Mesa.
A message on the marquee sign states that Spirit Day is every Wednesday at California Elementary School in Costa Mesa. School and district administrators have come under fire recently from parents, who say a cohort of bullies in fifth grade are not only disrupting classes but causing teachers to cry and, in one case, go on mental health leave.
(Kevin Chang / Daily Pilot)
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Good morning! It’s Wednesday, Dec. 21. We are Carol Cormaci and Vince Nguyen bringing you today’s TimesOC newsletter. Together we’ve aggregated the latest local news and events for you. A special note: Due to holiday staffing considerations, this newsletter will be on hiatus until Wednesday, Jan. 11. We hope the rest of this season is an enjoyable one for you and that 2023 brings many special moments your way.

Sometimes when a reporter covers a school board meeting the most eyebrow-raising tidbits come not from tedious school district reports filled with education-related acronyms (check out this list of California Department of Education acronyms if you want to weep for a layperson trying to make sense of it all) but in public comments made by parents in attendance.

Last week our Daily Pilot colleague Sara Cardine learned at a meeting of the Newport-Mesa School District board that there’s a group of young tyrants at a local elementary school who are not only bothering their classmates but are driving teachers to their wits’ end.

“Parents of California Elementary School in Costa Mesa are asking administrators to discipline a group of fifth-grade ‘bullies’ they claim repeatedly disrupt learning, harass and intimidate students and have caused teachers to leave their classrooms in tears,” Cardine reported.

“They described teachers being unable to complete lessons because they could no longer tolerate in-class disruptions, such as yelling, cursing and the throwing of objects,” the reporter continued. “In one case, a fourth-grade teacher reportedly went on mental health leave last year because of the students, who were not named at Tuesday’s meeting.”

According to Cardine’s report, one of the several parents who spoke up at the meeting, Andre Amiri, told the board he was among the school’s parents who met with the district’s assistant superintendent of elementary instruction, John Drake, and other district staff seeking answers.

“The teachers sat in, the fifth-grade teachers, and they were crying — that was enough for me to know that we are in a dire situation,” Amiri told the school board. “Just for their own sanity and health, we need intervention.”

There were several other similarly worrisome comments made about the bullies that have turned things upside down for teachers at the campus. Many parents, who say they have reached out to the principal, are concerned about the ability for their own children to learn in that environment. One told the board he had to hire a tutor for his daughter because of the distractions.

Whenever he picks her up after the final bell rings, she tells him not what she learned but what the problem kids did that day.

“It just feels like California [Elementary] is kind of grooming these bullies, from third grade to fourth grade to fifth grade now,” he said. “It really sucks to be a dad and see my daughter go through that.”

NMUSD Supt. Wes Smith acknowledged during the meeting that officials were well aware of the issue and were working to resolve it. Two days later after Cardine’s Dec. 14 article was published, district officials shared with her the many steps taken to combat the bad behavior, promising to keep parents apprised of progress.

Administrators have beefed up staffing in fifth-grade classrooms to prevent disruptions and provide resources to teachers and students. More serious violations may follow if the issue persists.

“We really try to do everything we can before we suspend a student,” Sarah Coley, NMUSD’s director of Student and Community Services, told Cardine in an interview Friday. “They can’t be suspended for only being disruptive and defiant. Legally, we cannot suspend a student just for that.”

When it comes to traditional punishments for willful defiance or disruption in the classroom — such as suspending a child from school temporarily or permanent expulsion — administrators’ hands are tied by California education laws precluding such practices, Cardine reports. Passed in 2013, Assembly Bill 420 prohibited the suspension of children in kindergarten through third grade on such grounds. In 2019, the law was amended under Senate Bill 419 to extend the prohibition from the fourth through eighth grades.

Since the story of the fifth-grade bullies broke last week in the Daily Pilot, parents and educators from around the area have touched base with us to say kids are terrorizing students and teachers at other campuses as well. So it’s not just one school or one district’s problem. It’s an issue that should be concerning to all of us.

MORE NEWS

— Built on half an acre on Pomona Street, “The Bungalows” in Costa Mesa features eight units built through a partnership of nonprofit organizations, elected officials and building industry professionals. Under the living arrangement, residents — as many as 36 individuals from eight families — of “The Bungalows” will pay an affordable monthly rent, ranging from about $1,150 to $1,350 per month, while receiving ongoing assistance, education and services designed to help them regain financial self-sufficiency.

— No wood-burning fires today: All of Orange County and the non-desert portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties are under a mandatory prohibition on indoor and outdoor wood burning through at least 11:59 p.m. today, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Homes that rely on wood as a sole source of heat, low-income households and those without natural gas service are exempt from the requirement. The AQMD announced a one-day ban last Saturday that was extended due to a forecast of high air pollution in the region. Residents can receive no-burn-day notifications by signing up for Air Alerts via email or text at www.AirAlerts.org.

— Recently elected Newport Beach City Council members were sworn into office last week and, in a unanimous vote, Noah Blom and Will O'Neill were named the mayor and mayor pro tem, respectively, for the coming year. Blom was first elected in 2020, and O'Neill was reelected that same year and is currently serving his second term. O'Neill served as mayor in 2020.

— Bob Whalen, who served three consecutive terms as mayor from 2019 to 2021, was appointed to serve in the role again by the Laguna Beach City Council. Also joining the City Council is Alex Rounaghi, who turned 25 nine days after being sworn in. Rounaghi promises to prioritize public safety, the environment, affordable housing and data-driven government.

PUBLIC SAFETY & COURTS

Roughly 50,000 fentanyl pills, an unspecified amount of cash, a "ghost" gun and a high-capacity magazine.
Roughly 50,000 fentanyl pills, an unspecified amount of cash, a “ghost” gun and a high-capacity magazine were found during the arrest of a suspected narcotics dealer in Newport Beach, police say.
(Courtesy of the Newport Beach Police Department)

An estimated 50,000 fentanyl pills were found in a narcotic bust during an arrest made on Dec. 9, Newport Beach police say. The street value of the pills ranges around $250,000. Also found were an unregistered homemade firearm, also known as a “ghost” gun, an unspecified large amount of cash and a high-capacity magazine.

— A Silver Alert issued Monday was still in effect as of this newsletter’s deadline last night for a 94-year-old woman reported missing from the San Juan Capistrano area, according to a report by City News Service. Shirley “Jean” Airth was last seen leaving her home for one of her regular walks at about 5 p.m. Sunday in the 32000 block of Via Buena. The California Highway Patrol issued the alert Monday on behalf of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. The missing woman’s son, Brian Airth, told reporters at a news conference Tuesday afternoon that his mother was recently starting to show signs of dementia. “She currently has dementia and like a lot of people with dementia she’s starting to get a little paranoid,” her son said. “She might be hiding because she’s getting paranoid. ... Please look at your storage spaces and cars.”

— Our colleague Christopher Goffard at the L.A. Times reported that Franc Cano, a serial killer who abducted and murdered several women in 2013 and 2014 with an accomplice in Anaheim and Santa Ana while on parole for a sex offense, pleaded guilty to murder Thursday after prosecutors dropped their call for the death penalty. “He took away everything from us,” Melody Anaya, the daughter of victim Martha Anaya, told the judge as Cano sat a few feet away in court Thursday. “I wasn’t there when he killed her, but I see it in my head every day.” Goffard’s complete report can be found here.

— Fred Harper Jr., 29, was charged Tuesday with murder and other offenses in a drug-fueled crash Friday in Westminster that killed 64-year-old Eduardo Hernandez of Stanton and left another victim with life-threatening injuries. Harper was charged with second-degree murder, driving under the influence of drugs causing bodily injury, hit and run with permanent injury or death, hit and run with injury, all felonies, and a misdemeanor count of petty theft.

Nain Hernandez, 36, was sentenced Tuesday by Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard King. Hernandez was convicted of second-degree murder of Sarai Alcaraz in a Newport Beach office complex in 2015.

— Local law enforcement agencies plan to have additional officers on patrol looking for suspected impaired drivers through New Year’s Day. Several cities have planned checkpoints. Individuals charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs receive an average of $13,500 in fines and a suspended license.

— CNS reports Orange County prosecutors have cleared a La Habra police officer of any wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of a suspect, who shot an officer last year, the Orange County district attorney’s office announced Monday. In a letter to the La Habra Police Department Chief Adam Foster dated Nov. 18, prosecutors cleared Officer Abigail Fox of any criminal conduct in the fatal shooting of 22-year-old Matthew-Tuan Anh Tran on Aug. 6, 2021.

— A 71-year-old Rancho Santa Margarita man behind the wheel of his Ferrari failed to negotiate a bend on Santiago Canyon Road Friday afternoon and crashed into two other cars, according to another CNS report. Robert Joseph Nicoletti’s Ferrari slammed head-on into a Toyota Venza driven by Pauline Bui and then collided head-on with a Mazda driven by Daniel Ryan. Nicoletti’s car split in two, he was ejected and died, while those in the other vehicles involved sustained minor injuries. The accident caused the closure of Santiago Canyon for about five hours, according to a CHP officer.

LIFE & LEISURE

Spencer Buchanan and Charlie Beek skiing at Santiago Peak on Dec. 12.
Newport Beach residents Spencer Buchanan, right, and Charlie Beek ski at Santiago Peak in the Santa Ana Mountains on Dec. 12.
(Courtesy of Spencer Buchanan)

— Spencer Buchanan of Newport Beach has long wanted to tackle skiing down O.C.'s Santiago Peak, which, as you probably already know, doesn’t offer much in the way of powder. Ever. Our colleague Eric Licas interviewed the 27-year-old Buchanan and the friends he roped into his inane dream after they actually achieved a run during the last storm. It was, Buchanan told Licas, “like the worst skiing of my entire life. It was really stupid, but we did it. We did it!” Their skis were ruined, but that won’t get in the way of a good story they’ll be able to tell for years.

— The Santa Ana Zoo is in need of more monkeys, according to this feature by our L.A. Times colleague Gabriel San Román. “But there are only 28 of them — far below the 50 required by the monkey-loving citrus rancher who donated the 12 acres just south of the 5 Freeway that the zoo has occupied since 1952,” he writes. “Over the years, heirs of Joseph Prentice, who was nicknamed the ‘Monkey Man,’ have tried to enforce the 50-monkey rule, even threatening to take back the land.” Fortunately for zoo officials, a new heir is taking a more gentle stance in the matter, saying he thinks the zoo has managed the monkey population well and he wouldn’t want to second-guess them.

— While continuing his habit of giving, Aaron and Josette Rofer are keeping alive the memory of their son, Bradley Rofer, at Coto de Caza Golf Club. The 8-year-old was killed by a truck on his way to school in September. Bradley started a business, Bradley’s Beautiful Bouquets, to donate money to a GoFundMe page for a boy battling leukemia. His parents turned the business into a nonprofit and held the Bradley Rofer Foundation Golf Tournament to continue his legacy.

Sega of America, Inc. officially opened a new office for the company’s North American headquarters at Innovation Office Park. The new 31,700-square-foot office for the company’s North American headquarters is home to 235 employees in Sega’s publishing departments and also the Atlus Games subsidiary. The company’s new home is intended to not only be a place for the team to grow but also to come together.

— The Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” has returned to the South Coast Repertory for its 42nd year, adapted by Jerry Patch with SCR founding member Richard Doyle as Ebenezer Scrooge. Audience members donned red scarves at a recent matinee performance. Adapted by Jerry Patch and directed by Hisa Takakuwa, the classic runs through Saturday.

— The Newport Beach Police Department on Friday hosted its monthly Mobile Café, which also receives support from the Irvine Co. Launched in July, the event cultivates approachability between officers and the citizens they serve. To learn more about the Mobile Café readers can email Sgt. Oberon at soberon@nbpd.org.

— Aja Zou, now 16, started playing piano when she was 6. The Sage Hill junior was recently named one of four finalists recognized nationally in classical music by YoungArts, a nonprofit that focuses on highlighting emerging high school artists. Winners spread across 10 different artistic disciplines are determined by a panel of specialists in those fields and are given the opportunity to attend “National YoungArts Week” in Miami in January.

SPORTS

Fountain Valley's Caine Elroy tries to get a pin on Corona del Mar's Tony Leon.
Fountain Valley’s Caine Elroy tries to get a pin on Corona del Mar’s Tony Leon during their Surf League wrestling match at Corona del Mar High on Wednesday, Dec. 14.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

— Caine Elroy won the decisive heavyweight bout, clinching a 33-30 win for visiting Fountain Valley against Corona del Mar in last Wednesday’s Surf League opener. Elroy defeated Anthony Leon in a 9-2 decision. The showdown marked the first league meeting between the Barons and the Sea Kings. As of Dec. 5, Fountain Valley was ranked third in the CIF Southern Section’s Division 1 and 2 combined poll.

— After leading the Laguna Hills High football team to the CIF Southern Section Division 7 title, a Southern California regional title and the Division 3-A state title, sports columnist Eric Sondheimer named Hawks coach John Lester the L.A. Times coach of the year. Lester propelled the team to a 15-1 record in his second season as head coach.

— The first round of the Battle of the Bell basketball games concluded with both Costa Mesa boys’ and girls’ basketball teams coming away with victories against backyard rival Estancia. The Mustangs girls’ basketball team scored nine three-pointers in a 44-38 win over the Eagles, while Josh Galamgam scored 22 points to lead the Costa Mesa boys’ team to a 63-45 victory over Estancia.

— Jaiden Anderson and Sienna McAthy led the Huntington Beach girls’ soccer team to a 3-0 victory over Surf League rival Edison in the EFGH bracket of the Best in the West Winter Soccer Classic. McAthy opened the scoring for the Oilers before Anderson, who committed to USC, scored twice in a span of two minutes to win the title at Bolsa Grande High School.

— Billie Moore, a former Olympic, UCLA and Cal State Fullerton basketball coach, died at 79 on Dec. 15 from multiple myeloma. Moore led the first U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team to win the silver medal in the 1976 Games in Montreal. She also became the first women’s basketball coach to guide two college teams to national championships, winning it all with CSU Fullerton in 1970 and again with UCLA in 1978. She compiled a 436-196 record in her 24-year career. Moore spent her final days at her Fullerton home.

KEEP IN TOUCH

Thank you for reading today’s newsletter. If you have a memory or story about Orange County, we would love to read and share it in this space. Please try to keep your submission to 100 words or less and include your name and current city of residence.

We appreciate your help in making this the best newsletter it can be. Please send news tips, your memory of life in O.C. or comments to carol.cormaci@latimes.com or vincent.nguyen@latimes.com.