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Teacher Has 2nd Molestation Case

Moreno Valley district asks why the accused was allowed to stay on after a conviction in a 1992 case. A notification process may have failed.

August 29, 2003|Lance Pugmire and Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writers

The Moreno Valley Unified School District will launch an investigation to determine how a middle school teacher accused of molesting two boys, including a former student, remained on staff despite a similar case a decade earlier, district officials said Thursday.

"The issue is that if the district was derelict, we need to know how and why," Supt. Nick Ferguson said. "What we're asking ourselves is how we can fill in the blanks. We are looking to explain this."

Thomas Lee West Jr., 48, of Riverside was arrested last week and faces seven felony molestation counts. The investigation began after a teenager told authorities that West had molested him beginning when he was 12 years old. If convicted, West could get life in prison.

Michael Hestrin, the Riverside County deputy district attorney prosecuting West, said the alleged lewd acts with the two minors, including fondling and oral copulation, occurred from 1997 to 2000.

"[West] gained access to these children through his profession as a teacher," Hestrin said. "We will prosecute him to the full extent of the law."

Steve Harmon, West's attorney, declined to comment, saying he hadn't reviewed documents or talked with West about the case.

West's arraignment is scheduled for Sept. 16. He remains in custody with bail set at $500,000. He has been placed on unpaid administrative leave, Ferguson said.

Riverside County Sheriff's Sgt. John Hill said the investigation into the allegations against West remains active, and detectives are trying to determine whether there are more alleged victims.

"We are preparing for another [press] release next week, as we continue to conduct more interviews and explore additional leads," Hill said.

West has taught in the district for 20 years, including seventh-grade classes and an elective television production course as recently as July at Vista Heights Middle School in Moreno Valley.

"He does not reflect the teachers of Moreno Valley," said Katherine Underwood, president of the Moreno Valley Educators Assn. "It is a rare occurrence. It happens in all walks of life."

When school resumes next week, Ferguson said, he will inform parents about the arrest, although he stopped short of saying he will issue an apology despite some strong reactions by some parents.

"You say 'Sorry' when you know you have something to be sorry about," Ferguson said.

Ferguson acknowledged that West was arrested in 1992 on 10 felony counts of child molestation of his foster son. West ultimately was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and serve 120 days in jail.

Sheriff's spokesman Dennis Gutierrez said any arrest record was automatically forwarded to the state Department of Justice, which is supposed to notify the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. That notification didn't happen, a commission spokesman said.

Ferguson said the plea agreement may have allowed West to expunge or seal his court file.

West's current teaching records show no "adverse actions," said Lee Pope, staff counsel for the state commission. West's credential expires in July 2007. It could be suspended pending the outcome of the current case.

The commission is investigating West's records from more than a decade ago, Pope said.

"I don't know what happened back then," he said.

Neither does the school district.

"No one [in charge] who's working here now was working here then," Ferguson said. "So what we have is a lot of speculation. One of the things we've heard is that the [alleged victim in the 1992 case] recanted his story. We know standards have changed now, allowing for stiffer penalties and more rapid responses [in molestation cases], but there was a time when there was overprotection of the accused."

Ferguson said he believed the 1992 case should have been enough to sever the district's contract with West, who also previously taught at Honey Hollow and Sunnymead elementary schools, which are in the same district.

"There should be a higher standard for people in the public sector, where parents entrust their children to us," Ferguson said.

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