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Theft from autistic girl brings jail term

A staff member at Camarillo High lifted money from a lunch box on 57 occasions.

March 06, 2008|Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writer

Every morning, Shawn Spitzer sent her 13-year-old daughter off to school with a lunch box of snacks and $5 to buy a hot meal.

Every afternoon, Spitzer noticed that her daughter, who has severe autism and cannot speak, would head straight for the refrigerator when she came home.

Spitzer wondered if it was a growth spurt. Maybe the cafeteria food was bad. But the reason for her daughter's hunger, authorities learned, was more disturbing: The special education assistant was stealing her lunch money.

Over the course of three days, using a hidden camera, police twice caught Kristen Rene Santoyo, 37, lifting the $5 from the girl's lunch box at Camarillo High School.

Santoyo was arrested on campus, and later charged and convicted of felony petty theft and a misdemeanor charge of cruelty to a child.

On Tuesday, Ventura County Superior Court Judge James P. Cloninger sentenced Santoyo to six months in jail and three years' probation for stealing the victim's lunch money on 57 separate occasions between September and November.

In addition, Santoyo must pay $285 restitution to the student and attend at least one year of weekly child abuse counseling sessions.

"We trusted this caregiver, the assistant teacher, with our child, the most precious thing we have, and she violated that trust day after day by victimizing her," Spitzer said. "And this was a victim that couldn't speak, that couldn't tell anybody she was hungry or that her teacher was stealing from her."

Deputy Public Defender James Harmon argued that Santoyo suffered from a drug abuse problem that resulted in bad judgment.

When she was arrested in November, police said a urine test allegedly showed that Santoyo was under the influence of methamphetamine and that she also had a drug pipe in her purse.

As part of a plea agreement in January, drug-related charges against Santoyo were dropped.

"This was a sad and somewhat pathetic person who had a problem with drugs and that caused her to exercise" poor judgment, Harmon said. "She forfeited a lot in her life for a very nominal gain. She gave up a job she had for years and years, isn't likely to be hired for that line of work again and is going to spend some time in jail."

Spitzer said the Oxnard Union High School District needs to make changes in its hiring practices and drug-testing policies.

"We don't know that this defendant is the only person out there doing these crimes, because the policies that are in place right now are not working," she said.

School officials said Santoyo was fingerprinted and had undergone a background check before she was hired in 1996.

One year later, the district adopted a new electronic database called "Live Scan" to track the history of district employees through their fingerprints and to alert school officials to any new criminal charges.

Santoyo was convicted in 2001 of theft at a Mervyn's store where she worked and sentenced to 15 days in jail, but the district never learned of the criminal record because she was not in the district database, said Roger Rice, a district official.

"Our foremost priority is to protect students, so we're very disappointed," he said.

The district is reviewing the hiring records of its 1,400 employees to ensure that they are included in the electronic database, Rice said.

About 500 workers will have to be added to the system at a cost of about $30,000, he said.

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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