NOT AGAIN

01.25.13

Los Angeles’s School Nightmare: Another Sex-Abuse Scandal

After years of complaints were apparently ignored, a former city teacher has been arrested on suspicion of molesting 20 kids. Christine Pelisek talks to the ‘very angry’ superintendent.

In yet another embarrassment for one of the nation’s largest public-school systems, a fourth-grade teacher is in custody today on suspicion of sexually assaulting 20 children and one adult.

Fifty-seven-year-old Robert Pimentel, who taught at George De La Torre Jr. Elementary School in Los Angeles, has so far been charged with 15 counts of sexual abuse and lewd acts on a child. Prosecutors allege that he inappropriately touched students under and over their clothing from September 2011 until he left his job in March 2012. Before that time period as well, Pimentel had been the subject of parents’ complaints.

Just last year, in a scandal that set off an avalanche of lawsuits, another veteran teacher of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Mark Berndt, was accused of feeding his students spoonfuls of semen as part of a twisted ritual he called a “tasting game.” He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

“We are stunned here,” LAPD Detective Gus Villanueva tells The Daily Beast in the wake of the latest arrest. “We are dumbfounded. It just doesn’t stop.”

Pimentel had worked with the LAUSD since 1974. Police opened an investigation last year when “several girls told their parents that they had been inappropriately touched,” Villanueva said. His bail has been set at $12 million.

Pimentel’s lawyer, Richard Knickerbocker, says his client is innocent and never touched any of his charges inappropriately. “He didn’t do anything wrong,” Knickerbocker says. “All the alleged acts occurred at a time when the class was in session. Nobody is claiming it was done in secret. He had a policy to not be alone with any single student. He followed that policy to protect himself and the district. He was never alone with any of the victims, and nobody contends he was.

“The position we take is, if at any time he touched anyone, it was not an unlawful touching. It was not in violation of the penal code,” he adds. “If the school district says it is inappropriate, it is an improper charge. The complaints are unbelievably vague."

District superintendent John Deasy said he removed Pimentel from the school within 12 hours of learning of the alleged abuse. Deasy said he also got rid of a principal, Irene Hinojosa, after he learned that she had knowledge of two other complaints against Pimentel over an eight-year period and took no action. The first complaint, he said, occurred in 2008 at George De La Torre Jr. Elementary School; the second complaint was lodged in 2002, when Pimentel worked at another elementary school where Hinojosa was also the principal.

Hinojosa could not be reached for comment.

“I am very angry,” Deasy tells The Daily Beast. “You tell me you knew about a complaint and you didn’t act on it? You are gone, and if you touch a kid, you are gone. If you know about it and you don’t report it, you are going to lose your job. We are mandated to report it. It is the law.”

“Unfortunately it doesn’t surprise me. It is a culture of indifference.”
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TV crews wait outside George De La Torre Jr. Elementary School in the Wilmington area of Los Angeles on Thursday. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Attorney Luis Carrillo, who is representing the families of four of the most recent alleged victims, contends that the L.A. school district was negligent in not taking action sooner against Pimentel. Carrillo references the 2008 complaint, in which two different parents allegedly contacted Principal Hinojosa four years ago with concerns of inappropriate touching, but were apparently ignored.

It seems, according to Carrillo, that she “paid no attention to the complaints of the parents,” he said. “It shows a lack of sensitivity and compassion.”

Carrillo said another group of parents tried to lodge a complaint against Pimentel the following year with a board supervisor, but were also rebuffed. “They minimize the complaints against kids,” he said. “That is the pattern and practice of the school district."

The Los Angeles Police Department got involved last year when yet another group of parents showed up at the police station to lodge complaints, Carrillo said.

“When the police saw the group of five, they realized it was serious and paid attention," he said.

David M. Ring, an attorney in Los Angeles who is representing seven alleged victims of Berndt, who taught at Miramonte Elementary School, also questions why it took so long for the school district to take action. He blames it on the “circle the wagon” approach.

“Unfortunately it doesn’t surprise me,” he says. “It is a culture of indifference where the teachers are looking out for the teachers. They don’t want to get involved or make accusations, so they turn away. They are more concerned about protecting their own jobs and reputations.”

Ring says pedophile teachers “start testing the boundaries and pushing the boundaries, and no one does anything about it, and the next thing you know, they are molesting a kid.”

Deasy, the superintendent, says state laws need to be changed so that teachers who are suspected of child sexual abuse can be terminated and kept from collecting pension benefits.

“We tried last year to have laws changed,” he says. “Make it less cumbersome. It can take years to fire a teacher."

The travails of the Los Angeles school district have become a Pandora’s box that can’t be shut. Dozens of lawsuits, involving more than 225 parents and students, have been filed in recent years. Most of them have been centered around Berndt, who was arrested last year after he allegedly made his young charges pose for photographs in which they were blindfolded, bound, and sometimes gagged.

Berndt also allegedly placed gargantuan Madagascar cockroaches on their faces and even sent some of the twisted photographs home with his students.

Within a few days of Berndt’s arrest, another teacher at Miramonte, Martin Springer, was charged with three counts of lewd acts upon a child over a three-month period in 2009. He pleaded not guilty, and the case is still pending. 

In 2005 Ricardo Guevara, a teacher’s aide at Miramonte, was convicted of lewd acts with three girls. He was caught putting his hand into the pants of one girl in the courtyard of the campus—but only after three earlier sets of complaints against him by students were discounted by school officials. The district shelled out $1.6 million to the families of the three female victims in 2009.

In another case, Stephen Rooney, a teacher and administrator at Foshay Learning Center, was transferred to another school even though it was discovered that he was accused of having a sexual relationship with a student. He was eventually charged and sentenced to eight years in prison for molesting three teenage girls and a minor, including the student at Foshay, in 2008.

Last December a jury ordered the district to pay a 10-year-old boy who was repeatedly molested by Forrest Stobbe, a LAUSD elementary-school teacher, $6.9 million. It was one of the largest payouts in the history of the Los Angeles school system.

“Miramonte changed everything,” says Ring. “Just like the Roman Catholic Church, they finally were forced to deal with their bad conduct. LAUSD is going through the same thing. They have no choice now but to change.”