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Former Teacher Gets 6 Years for Sex With Students

The ex-middle school instructor apologizes to her victims and their families in a Santa Ana courtroom. She must register as a sex offender.

January 07, 2006|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

A former Orange middle school teacher who had sex with three students was sentenced Friday to six years in prison as her attorney painted the boys as willing participants who looked at pornography and bought condoms to prepare for the encounters.

Sarah Bench-Salorio, 29, a former Santiago Charter Middle School teacher and the wife of a one-time school board candidate, pleaded guilty in September to 29 counts of lewd conduct. She received the maximum sentence and must register as a sex offender.

Wearing a gray suit, her brown hair pulled into a ponytail, Bench-Salorio apologized in Orange County Superior Court.

"I understand clearly what I've done, and it will stay in my conscience that I've been an instrument of so much pain to those I truly cared for," she said, crying as she read a statement. "For 27 years of my life I was an upstanding individual with principles. I'm a good person. I understand I made horrible mistakes.... I'm extremely sorry."

She continued crying softly as her victims' parents tearfully told Judge Richard F. Toohey that their formerly well-behaved boys had become angry and disruptive since the incidents.

One victim's father told the judge that his son wanted to contact the husband of former Washington teacher Mary Kay Letourneau to ask him how he coped while she was imprisoned for seven years after having sex with him when he was 12.

The boy's stepmother told the judge that Bench-Salorio had contacted her son after her arrest through a classmate to tell him to wait for her because she expected her prison sentence would be only two years.

Prior to her arrest, Bench-Salorio gave the boy a coffee-table book about Montana, using Post-It notes to mark the places she planned to take him, Venus Soltan, the attorney representing two families in their suits against the Orange Unified School District, said outside the Santa Ana courtroom.

A second victim's parents told the judge that Bench-Salorio had offered to tutor their son during lunch and after school and baby-sit. Instead, she drove him to her house or a deserted parking lot where they would have sex in the backseat of her car, prosecutors said.

"You may have heard about how she was a great teacher, that students loved her and thought she was cool," said the mother of the first victim.

"But she definitely did not keep them safe. She was the very predator they needed protection against."

Allan H. Stokke, Bench-Salorio's attorney, argued for a three-year sentence, saying the boys did not suffer the way victims of sexual abuse do when they have been coerced. The boys enjoyed their encounters with her, he said, even anticipating them. "It's a mistake for her to have gone along with it," Stokke said.

He said that Bench-Salorio suffered from depression and bipolar disorder but is now taking medication and undergoing therapy. "Her mind was emotionally messed up at the time, no question about it," Stokke said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. John F. Christl portrayed the former teacher as a manipulative adult who abused her students' trust:

"I do not subscribe to the locker-room science where a boy should feel privileged to be molested by someone twice his age."

After the sentencing, Christl echoed the parents' concern that she could continue to be a threat to their sons and other children after her prison term.

Bench-Salorio met her first victim in May 2003. He was a 12-year-old fifth-grader at Panorama Elementary School in north Tustin, where she taught before transferring to Santiago. Prosecutors said she had sex with him over the next 16 months. Through him, she met a 13-year-old, whom she molested in the summer of 2004.

She had sex with a third boy, a 13-year-old seventh-grader in her class at Santiago. She was arrested the day after he contacted police in January 2005.

During a search of her Orange home, police seized journals containing poetry, sketches and writings referring to the victims, the prosecutor said.

A report released two weeks after the teacher's arrest faulted Santiago administrators for overlooking repeated warnings about her behavior.

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