LOS ANGELES (AP) — Just weeks after the arrest of a third-grade teacher accused of sexually abusing nearly two dozen students engulfed Los Angeles school officials in a scandal last year, word surfaced that children were being fondled by a fourth-grade teacher at another school.
Having been jolted by the first case, Los Angeles Unified School District officials moved swiftly. The fourth-grade teacher, Robert Pimentel, was pulled from his classroom, the state teacher credentialing commission was notified, and parents were alerted. When it became clear that years-old allegations against Pimentel hadn't been thoroughly investigated, the principal at his school was also removed.
While it took nearly a year to bring charges against Pimentel, the reaction by the school district shows how recent reforms put in place have reshaped how the school system deals with sexual abuse by teachers.
Those reforms came after the February 2012 arrest of Miramonte Elementary School third-grade teacher Mark Berndt, who is accused of blindfolding pupils and feeding them his semen in a tasting game. The district has since mandated that parents be notified within 72 hours of a report of a suspected abuser, and that each case be reviewed by several human resources staffers to ensure it is reported to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
District officials have also vowed to investigate molestation claims and move quickly to remove suspected teachers from classrooms while investigations are ongoing.
Police were contacted in March by the parents of five students at George De La Torre Jr. Elementary School who said Pimentel had touched their children inappropriately. District officials immediately removed him from campus and notifications were sent out.
More than 70 interviews were conducted during the police investigation, and 20 female students were found to have been victimized, Los Angeles police Capt. Fabian Lizarraga said. Another victim was a female teacher who complained that Pimentel had inappropriately touched her, police said.
The alleged abuse occurred in Pimentel's fourth-grade classroom during school hours and in some cases was witnessed by other students, Lizarraga said. The sexual abuse involved fondling over and underneath clothing, he said.
The Pimentel case may have been the first in the district that fell under the new policy, district Superintendent John Deasy said.
"It was very close to the first, if not the first," he said. "I don't know if it was a direct result (of the Miramonte case). There was a potentially serious problem there and we acted and did what we did."
Lizarraga added that although there was a spike in parent complaints after the Miramonte case, there wasn't any tie to the Pimentel case.
"These were some really alert parents knowing their kids and noticing subtle changes in their personalities," Lizarraga said.
The accusations against Pimentel, 57, span eight months, dating back to September 2011. He was arrested Wednesday and charged with 15 felony counts.
When the investigation against him began in March, the district was already reeling from Berndt's February 2012 arrest. Berndt has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewd acts and is awaiting trial. More than 225 parents and students are involved in various claims for damages against the district regarding that case.
In a separate case, a jury in December ordered the district to pay a boy molested by an elementary school teacher $6.9 million — among the largest awards in the history of the school system. The jury found the district liable for the repeated molestation of the 10-year-old student in 2008 and 2009 by teacher Forrest Stobbe at Queen Anne Elementary School in the city's mid-Wilshire district.
Pimentel had worked for the district since 1974. A previous report of sexual misconduct against him occurred four years ago at the school, and another complaint was made eight years ago at another elementary school where both a female principal and Pimentel had worked, Deasy said.
"My determination was that she was previously mishandling other complaints," Deasy said. "My intent was to fire them."
The district never got the chance because both Pimentel and the principal retired after the allegations were made.
Police said they will review the principal's failure to report the previous allegations.
Investigators attempted to interview Pimentel last year but he declined. He appeared in court Thursday but didn't enter a plea.
His lawyer, Richard Knickerbocker, told reporters outside court that the allegations are false and that his client will plead not guilty. Pimentel raised a family, volunteered as a soccer coach and was an outstanding teacher, Knickerbocker said.
"If you look at the record, before this, Pimentel has had a pretty exemplary life," he said. "He has no arrest record, for anything."