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Educator charged in 2 sex cases

The L.A. assistant principal at Markham Middle School is accused of molesting two more teenage girls.

April 29, 2008|Richard Winton and Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writers

A Los Angeles assistant principal who already faces charges of lewd acts against one student was charged Monday with molesting two others, broadening a case that has caused outrage in the South Los Angeles community in which he worked.

Assistant Principal Stephen T. Rooney was transferred to Markham Middle School in South Los Angeles last year, even though he was accused of engaging in a sexual relationship with a student at a previous school, Foshay Learning Center.

That transfer appears to have violated district policies, which require officials to conduct an independent investigation of abuse allegations before allowing a teacher or an administrator who has been accused of sexual misconduct to return to a school.

Rooney was charged last month with five counts of forcible lewd acts with a 13-year-old student at Markham. Now, he has been charged with molesting a second Markham student, a 14-year-old girl. Moreover, prosecutors said Monday they now had enough evidence to charge Rooney with molestation in the Foshay case, in which he previously had not been charged. In that case, he is alleged to have had sexual relations with a 15-year-old girl, beginning in 2005.

The new allegations are more bad news for officials of Los Angeles Unified School District, which has come under intense criticism for transferring Rooney to Markham even though they knew he had been accused of sexual relations with the Foshay student.

A relative of the Foshay student, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said he was relieved that Rooney was charged but questioned why it took so long. The family said they had complained to police about Rooney's alleged misconduct.

"He's gotten away with a lot of things, and I just feel for these kids," the relative said.

School district officials in a statement declined to comment, saying they do not interfere with Los Angeles Police Department investigations.

L.A. schools Supt. David L. Brewer, who apologized to Markham parents last month, said he had ordered an internal investigation into the district's handling of the case.

Parents and students gathered outside Markham after school Monday said the new allegations added to their mistrust of school administrators.

"They should be taking care of our kids," said Maria Rios, 33, a stay-at-home mom who was picking up her 12-year-old daughter. Rios questioned why Rooney was not investigated more thoroughly.

Gilbert and Elizabeth Zapata, who attended a meeting with Markham administrators after Rooney was arrested, said Monday that the school had not done enough.

"Why do you call the fireman when the house is already burned?" said Elizabeth Zapata, 30, whose 13-year-old son is in seventh grade at Markham. "They say we have to be the voice for our children, but what use is it when they are deaf?"

Instead of relying on the school, she said, parents have become hyper-vigilant.

"I have my eyes open for anything," she said. "That's how we need to be: Talk to our kids after school; give them the confidence to talk to me. If your teacher says he wants to take you for fries and Coke, he has to ask me first."

The new charges allege that Rooney, 39, committed lewd acts on the 14-year old girl at Markham three times this year. He is also charged with having sexual intercourse with the Foshay student four times between November 2005 and November 2006. During that time he was a dean at Foshay and in September 2006 became assistant principal at Fremont High in South L.A.

Rooney has denied the original charges and pleaded not guilty.

In February 2007, Rooney was arrested after the Foshay girl's stepfather alleged that Rooney had threatened him with a handgun. After the arrest, L.A. Unified officials transferred Rooney to a "non-school" setting.

During the investigation, police detectives uncovered evidence of a sexual relationship between Rooney and the Foshay student. According to police, the student had initially cooperated with detectives, but refused to cooperate when the case went to prosecutors.

When no criminal charges were filed, L.A. school officials reassigned Rooney to Markham. A written district policy requires that in cases where law enforcement drops an investigation of a district employee, the school system has "a heightened responsibility for the safety of its students" and should continue to investigate, even if police do not file charges.

"The assignment was a promotion to a position with all the trappings of authority and a wider latitude to interact with younger girls," said lawyer Gordon Phillips, an attorney for the teenagers. Rooney used his role at Markham to get girls out of class by giving hall passes that allowed them to come to his office, he said.

Rooney, who remains in jail, is scheduled for a preliminary hearing Wednesday.

His attorney, Dmitry Gorin, has said his client has done nothing wrong and there is "no physical evidence" that proves the charges. Rooney is an educator who is committed to helping youths and a patriot who serves as a captain in the California National Guard, Gorin has said. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

According to interviews with the Foshay girl's relatives as well as former students, Rooney lavished her with gifts, including a designer purse and an iPod.

Relatives said the girl visited Rooney at his loft near Staples Center, went on motorcycle rides with him and took a 2006 trip to New York with him to look at colleges.

--

richard winton@latimes.com

molly hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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