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School District Sued in Teacher's Slaying of Student

Officials knew of their relationship and suspected abuse, but didn't act, lawsuit says.

December 02, 2003|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

The principal of Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach and a school district official discovered that a teacher was living with a student and suspected him of hitting her, but he was still teaching three months later when he stabbed her to death, according to a lawsuit.

The wrongful-death suit, filed by Mayra Mora Lopez's father, charges that school officials learned of the relationship in July 2002, while the 19-year-old student was taking summer classes, and that they met with Spanish teacher Pedro Tepoz-Leon, then 34. But Tepoz-Leon apparently was not disciplined, according to the lawsuit, filed Nov. 7 in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Long Beach Unified School District spokesman Dick Van Der Laan said the accusations were "not accurate" and issued a prepared statement Monday.

"Both the school district and the principal assisted law enforcement and the courts in the successful prosecution of Mayra Mora's murderer," the statement said. "It's sad that the one person responsible for her tragic death is not named in this lawsuit. We expect the court to determine that both the district and the principal acted appropriately."

Van Der Laan said school officials are "compelled by law to report suspected abuse. I do know that was done." He said he could not elaborate, because he was constrained "by laws prohibiting the release of personnel and student data. However, I will say that the officials mentioned in the suit went to the police with their suspicions immediately."

The lawsuit, which seeks $10 million in damages, also names the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which receives criminal background checks on all applicants from the state Department of Justice.

Tepoz-Leon had been convicted of misdemeanor battery and corporal injury in connection with the beating of a former girlfriend in 1990. He pleaded guilty and served jail time.

An attorney for the credentialing commission, who would not discuss details of the case, said last year that a misdemeanor conviction would not necessarily preclude the agency from issuing a teaching certification.

The school district has said it received only a summary of Tepoz-Leon's background check, including the penal codes he was convicted of violating.

On Oct. 27, 2002, Lopez's body was found in the couple's Long Beach apartment. She had been beaten and stabbed. Later that night, Tepoz-Leon pulled his vehicle behind an officer near Vacaville, Calif., and, with wounds on his neck and torso, requested help.

The wounds were found to be superficial and, according to authorities, similar to cuts he had made on his wrists after the 1990 beating.

Tepoz-Leon, who pleaded not guilty, was convicted last month of first-degree murder by a jury. His sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 28.

Attorney Michele Patterson, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Martin Mora, a Long Beach cab driver, said the lawsuit seeks financial compensation for his daughter's death. But "more importantly, it is meant as a wake-up call to this district and all districts that they cannot take what was a known risk by hiring a violent criminal. He didn't steal a pizza; he was convicted of beating in his girlfriend's head, breaking her ocular bone, breaking her nose, detaching her retina, and strangling her."

A former roommate of Lopez's, as well as a Wilson High teacher, allegedly went to Wilson Principal Sandy Blazer with photographs of Lopez, claiming that Tepoz-Leon was beating her, the lawsuit alleges.

A conference between the accused teacher, the principal and an unnamed district representative occurred that July, according to Patterson.

The attorney claims there is no sign that the district or high school took any disciplinary action against the teacher, nor did they alert her family of the charges or summon domestic-violence counselors to try to persuade her to leave.

"Long Beach Unified failed her twice," Patterson said. "Once when they hired a criminal convicted of crimes of violence and put him in a position of power and status in 1996. And the second time came three months before her murder when her principal was shown pictures of and told of Mayra's battery."

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