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Charged pair back at school

L.A. schools chief is criticized for letting officials involved in an abuse case return to their campus jobs.

May 13, 2008|Richard Winton and Howard Blume | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County prosecutors were sharply critical Monday of L.A. school district Supt. David L. Brewer's decision to send two high school administrators back to work on campus after they were criminally charged with failing to report a student's claims that she was sexually abused by a substitute teacher.

David Demerjian, head of the Los Angeles district attorney's Public Integrity Division, said it's "very unusual" for public officials accused of a crime to be allowed to return to their jobs -- particularly when they deal with children.

"It is very surprising. We prosecute a lot of public employees, and they are usually placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the trial," he said.

Jesus Angulo, principal of South East High School in South Gate, and Maria Sotomayor, an assistant principal, were charged May 1 with failing to report child abuse allegations by a girl who said substitute teacher Jesus Salvador Saenz had sex with her.

As district employees, they are mandated under state law and district policy to report any reasonable suspicion of child abuse to a "child protective services agency."

But prosecutors said when the student went to the administrators in October, they failed to do so.

The South Gate case follows intense criticism of the Los Angeles Unified School District for its handling of the case of former assistant principal Steve Rooney.

In February 2007, the Los Angeles Police Department told district officials that Rooney was suspected of having sexual contact with a student at Foshay Learning Center in South L.A.

After initially putting Rooney in a desk job at a non-school site, district officials transferred him to Markham Middle School in Watts when prosecutors didn't file charges. He has now been charged with molesting two students there and the former Foshay student.

Angulo and Sotomayor have not yet been arraigned and could be not be reached for comment Monday. If convicted, they each face up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

Brewer, in an interview with The Times, defended the decision to return the administrators.

He said they were needed back on campus to avoid disruptions -- particularly with state academic testing this week and graduation scheduled in the next few weeks.

Brewer said he suspended the officials for three days without pay -- and that they would be subject to additional discipline if convicted. Brewer said if they get the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor "they're done."

"We sent them a strong signal," Brewer said.

Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said that in addition to the suspension, the administrators were removed from campus for 10 days. They also had a permanent letter of discipline placed in their employee files. And the two administrators will become personal messengers to their colleagues about adhering to district policy and state law.

"There are no gray areas here," Cortines said. At the same time, "I'm not interested in cutting off someone's hands. I'm interested in repatriating them. I want them to use their experience to share with others so we don't have this situation happening again."

Barring new information, Cortines added, he anticipates no further action against the administrators, even if they are convicted of a misdemeanor, a position at odds with Brewer's understanding of the situation.

Cortines also said the two administrators were faced with another sexual impropriety case at South East High School last year.

"They handled it almost the exact same way, and the district didn't do anything," said Cortines, who declined to provide details. "They thought they handled it correctly."

In the most recent case, police arrested the substitute teacher in March on molestation charges when the student complained for a second time -- this time to an L.A. Unified police officer, according to prosecutors. The officer immediately reported her allegation to South Gate police.

Demerjian said the student had first reported the alleged abuse to a school counselor five months earlier. The counselor told her to talk to Angulo and Sotomayor. During that questioning by the administrators, which lasted two to three hours, the girl recanted the allegation, Demerjian said.

Angulo, 35, and Sotomayor, 36, both of Downey, did not tell local police, but did subsequently inform a school police officer, Demerjian said. It's unclear exactly what the administrators told the officer or what the officer did with the information.

But under state law, educators who have a "reasonable suspicion" of child abuse must inform local police, state authorities or the county probation department. The law specifically says that reporting an allegation to school police or security is inadequate.

Both administrators, Demerjian said, had completed training on mandated requirements for reporting abuse. He added that Los Angeles Unified policy also stipulates that telling a school security officer is insufficient. L.A. Unified employees must make a report to a local police agency, the Sheriff's Department or county child welfare services.

When district employees are the alleged perpetrators, employees who learn of the alleged abuse also must notify their supervisor, according to district policy.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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