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Report cites district errors

No current employee is directly blamed for L.A. Unified's handling of a suspected child molester.

November 03, 2008|Howard Blume | Blume is a Times staff writer.

A confidential investigation into how a suspected child molester was assigned to a Los Angeles Unified School District middle school has concluded that no current employee was directly to blame, even though several made mistakes. The report itself has been criticized, as has the response of the district, which declined to disclose what, if any, disciplinary action resulted.

Steve Thomas Rooney became an assistant principal at Markham Middle School in Watts last year after police had warned the district that they suspected Rooney had had a sexual relationship with an underage former student.

Months later, police arrested Rooney on suspicion of molesting students at his new school. Rooney, 40, faces charges involving four students -- two from Markham and two from Foshay Learning Center in South Los Angeles, where he had previously worked. He has denied wrongdoing.

After Rooney was arrested in March, the district hired a law firm, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, to review his path to Markham. The Times obtained the report through a Public Records Act request.

Among its findings:

* Local District Supt. Carol Truscott, who made the decision to move Rooney to Markham, violated district policy by not first initiating an internal probe to see whether he posed any threat or should be disciplined. She responded that she didn't know that district policy mandated such an inquiry.

* Scott Braxton, who worked for Truscott overseeing schools, violated the same policy and offered the same reason.

* Dan Isaacs, the district's former chief operations officer, failed to share sufficient details regarding allegations against Rooney.

* The district's Employee Relations Department tracked only a gun allegation against Rooney, and the separate Staff Relations Department didn't advise Truscott to launch an internal review. Representatives of both departments claimed to be unaware of the sex allegations.

* The Los Angeles Police Department failed to keep reminding district employees about the sex allegations.

The $209,000 inquiry revisited district actions between February and September of 2007. At the start of that period, police detectives were investigating allegations that Rooney, on Jan. 1, 2007, threatened the stepfather of a former student with a gun.

Detectives quickly concluded that Rooney had a sexual relationship with the underage girl, whom he had taught at Foshay, according to police.

As related in the report, police alerted senior L.A. Unified officials in early February about their intent to arrest Rooney on the gun charge. At the time, Rooney was an assistant principal at Fremont High in South Los Angeles. Over several days the police had multiple conversations with the district regarding the alleged sexual improprieties, the report said. Those briefed included Isaacs, two aides, school district Police Chief Lawrence E. Manion and two of his officers.

Isaacs called Truscott and sent a brief memo to the Board of Education, Supt. David L. Brewer and 11 other top officials but did not inform the Employee Relations Department, which monitors criminal investigations involving employees. (Isaacs told the law firm that he called that department.) The memo stated that, in addition to the gun charge, "LAPD is also investigating allegations that [Rooney] had an unlawful sexual relationship with a minor."

The report criticized Isaacs because the memo "failed to mention everything Isaacs knew."

In a statement in June, Brewer went further, singling out Isaacs for "the mishandling of the Rooney case."

District and law enforcement sources criticized the report's focus on Isaacs, who retired more than two months before Truscott approved sending Rooney to Markham. Isaacs declined to comment.

In an interview, Kathleen Collins, an attorney for L.A. Unified, defended the Employee Relations staff and criticized police: Staff members "are interfacing with law enforcement, but law enforcement wasn't telling them about the sex allegations," Collins said.

Police officials had no comment on that. But "when you talk to the school district chief of police and the head of district operations, you've made that notification," said Charlie Beck, LAPD chief of detectives.

After the gun arrest, Truscott assigned Rooney temporarily to a desk job under Braxton. Months later, the Staff Relations Department told Truscott and Braxton that the gun charge had been dropped, so Rooney could be returned to a campus.

L.A. Unified policy, adopted in 2006, stipulates that both the local superintendent (Truscott) and the employee's supervisor (Braxton), are responsible for follow-up investigation regardless of whether prosecutors file charges. The case stalled mainly because the Foshay student wouldn't testify against Rooney.

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