An Orange charter school teacher pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges that she had sex with three male students, relationships chronicled in her journal and sustained with e-mails and clandestine dinners.
Sarah Bench-Salorio, 29, the wife of a onetime school board candidate, admitted 29 counts of lewd conduct and faces three to six years in prison. She will be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of her life.
Calling the former Santiago Middle School teacher a "sexual predator," Deputy Dist. Atty. John Christl said, "This conviction assures that she will never have the opportunity to teach or prey upon our children again."
Bench-Salorio's lawyer, though, said her actions stemmed from depression and her bipolar disorder, for which she is now taking medication and undergoing therapy.
"Her life was just much more comfortable with those boys than with her husband at the time," said attorney Allan Stokke. "They demanded nothing. The relationship with them was not something that was done for strictly sexual reasons."
Bench-Salorio met her first victim in May 2003 when he was a 12-year-old fifth-grader at Panorama Elementary School in north Tustin, where she taught before transferring to Santiago. She molested him over the following 16 months, according to prosecutors. He introduced her to a 13-year-old boy, whom she molested in summer 2004.
She had sex with her third victim, a seventh-grader in her class at Santiago, from September to December 2004. She was arrested the day after the 13-year-old reported the conduct to police.
In journals obtained through search warrants at her home in Orange, Bench-Salorio wrote poetry, drew sketches and referred to the victims, the prosecutor said.
"There's volumes and volumes that were seized," Christl said at her arraignment.
Her January 2005 arrest prompted Orange Unified trustees to threaten revoking Santiago's charter. They relented after the school promised to better investigate complaints about staff members.
The case triggered several changes in district policy, said Orange Unified School Board President Kathy Moffat. Administrators, teachers and other staff receive more training about signs of inappropriate relationships.
Santiago's charter, which was renewed this summer, contains increased safeguards in hiring and supervision.
A report released two weeks after the teacher's arrest faulted Santiago administrators for overlooking repeated warnings about her conduct.
Parents had complained about Bench-Salorio's revealing bathing suit and "physical horseplay" with a group of students at a pool party. The report also cited a letter Bench-Salorio wrote in August 2004, requesting that a certain boy be placed in her class despite her principal's concerns about their "personal relationship."
That boy was one of her three victims, prosecutors said.
Forgoing a trial is best for the victims, at least two of whom have sued the school district, Moffat said.
"This will probably obviously save some pain and suffering for the children who were involved," she said.
If Bench-Salorio had been convicted at trial, set to start next week, she could have faced up to 62 years in prison.
At her sentencing Nov. 18, Stokke said he will push for the minimum three-year punishment.
"She really deserves probation for this, but that's not an option for the judge," he said. "She feels horrible about what she has put these families through, and she wants to move on with her life."
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.