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Brewer apologizes in sex case

L.A. schools chief tells parents he's looking into how assistant principal got post despite allegations.

March 14, 2008|Howard Blume and Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writers

Saying he hadn't "slept well in days," Los Angeles schools Supt. David L. Brewer told parents at Markham Middle School on Thursday that he is investigating "how a policy and system we have in place failed" when an administrator previously investigated for allegedly having sex with a Foshay Learning Center student was transferred to Markham.

The administrator, Assistant Principal Steve Thomas Rooney, 39, was arrested last week and charged with five counts of forcible lewd acts on a 13-year-old Markham student.

"I am deeply, deeply sorry . . . for this incident," Brewer told a gathering of more than 100 parents and students who had come to hear an explanation of why Rooney was transferred to Markham despite the allegations. Rooney was arrested in early 2007 after allegedly pulling a gun on the Foshay student's stepfather, but police said they did not file charges because the student was by then 18 and refused to cooperate.

Nevertheless, a written district policy makes clear that in cases where law enforcement drops an investigation into 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 mother, grandmother and stepfather of the girl from Foshay said Thursday that the school system never sought them out.

The grandmother, who asked for anonymity to protect her granddaughter's privacy, said she went on her own accord to Foshay in spring 2007 to discuss Rooney with school officials. She said an administrator told her to stop asking questions about Rooney and assured her that he would soon be fired.

The official "said it would be too much of a scandal to say anything," the grandmother recalled in an interview with The Times.

Brewer said he has authorized his legal office to appoint an independent outside counsel to investigate what happened in the Rooney case. He also said he will form a task force to review all employees currently under any suspicion before they can return to a school site.

He promised "to educate parents, staff and students on inappropriate behavior," saying "we have to do a better job making sure they're more vigilant."

Brewer said he had no information about statements by police that officers fully informed district officials about the findings of their investigation of Rooney. That too will be explored, Brewer said.

Rooney allegedly met the Foshay girl when she was a student in his health class. It's not clear exactly when the purported relationship began, but police said the girl told them last year that she became intimate with Rooney when she was 16. The relationship continued, she told police, when Rooney accepted a position last year as assistant principal at Fremont High in South Los Angeles.

Rooney first drew police attention when he allegedly brandished a gun at the girl's stepfather, warning him to treat his daughters better.

When officers arrested Rooney, the school district removed him from Fremont and assigned him to a job away from students at the local district headquarters pending the outcome of the investigation. He never returned to Fremont, but was placed at Markham last September.

Rooney's return to a school site is "unfathomable," said a former high-level district official. "It's also odd. The case was of sufficient concern to people on the 24th floor" -- where the superintendent and his cabinet work at the Beaudry building downtown -- "that it was a topic of conversation.

"I can't imagine who would put this individual back in a school," added the former senior staffer, who requested anonymity because of ongoing dealings with L.A. Unified.

Carol Truscott, superintendent of the LAUSD subdistrict that includes Markham, said she has been directed not to comment because of the ongoing investigation, but said she would never do anything to knowingly endanger children.

Rooney was placed at Markham on an interim basis, substituting for an administrator on leave for personal reasons.

"Employees who return to work are placed in available openings," said one administrator, who requested anonymity.

"Whether from illness or whatever, they are put in available openings. He was cleared of the allegation and cleared to return to work."

The district policy requiring officials to continue to investigate, even if police decide not to file charges, was strengthened out of concerns raised several years ago by school board member Mike Lansing, who has since left office. Lansing said he learned of an employee who was transferred twice after allegations of sexual impropriety that never led to a criminal case.

"My concern was: I'd rather err on the other end, in favor of the kids," Lansing said. "Whether they were convicted or not, there are just too many things out there and too many people looking to prey on children."

No evidence has yet emerged that the district conducted its own investigation at all -- after the police were done.

Markham staff members said they had little knowledge about Rooney's past except through rumors that began to reach the campus.

Some of Rooney's colleagues at schools where he'd worked gave him good marks based on what they saw.

"When I heard no charges were filed on the first arrest, I was relieved," said one Fremont staff member, who asked not to be named because she was not authorized to speak. "I hoped he could come back here. But he was arrested out in the parking lot here during school, so it might have been difficult for him to return."

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howard.blume@latimes.com

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Times staff writers Richard Winton and Joel Rubin contributed to this report.

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