Nineteen former Redlands Unified School District students who say they were sexually abused by teachers and staff members are asking state Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate the district, claiming that current and former administrators still have not been held accountable for failing to report the abuse and protect them.
In the last decade, more than 25 survivors of sexual abuse involving 10 current and former school district employees have sued the district, resulting in more than $41.3 million in legal settlements, according to a letter sent to Bonta on Tuesday, Feb. 22, by the survivors.
In each of those cases, which occurred from 1999 through 2016, the survivors allege school and district administrators knew about and/or covered up reports of the sexual abuse. They were allowed to keep their jobs and some were even promoted, despite their failure to properly report and investigate complaints.
“We appeal to you to use your authority to conduct a full, independent investigation of this district and to appoint an Administrator to govern RUSD and insure (sic) full cooperation with your investigation,” the survivors said in their letter to Bonta.
Among the 19 survivors who signed the letter were the victims of Laura Whitehurst, a former English teacher and soccer coach at Citrus Valley High School, former Redlands High School math teacher and golf coach Kevin Patrick Kirkland, and former Clement Middle School English teacher Sean Ramiro Lopez.
All three were criminally charged and convicted, and Lopez remains incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, serving a 74-year sentence.
Grand jury report cited
Included with the letter to the attorney general was a copy of a recently released report by the San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury, which, prompted by a Southern California News Group investigation, launched its own probe of the district.
The grand jury found that, despite supposed sweeping reforms the district implemented in 2018, school and district personnel are still struggling with their legal duty to weed out sexual predators within their ranks.
In response to the Southern California News Group’s coverage of the grand jury report, Superintendent Mauricio Arellano wrote a three-page letter to parents defending the school district’s policies and “denigrating district critics including our attorney and law firm,” the letter stated.
“Superin Arellano also stated, ‘Under my leadership, there will be no information to any legal agency with an investigation. Under my leadership, there will be no employee, who is found to violate our policies, not held accountable.’ This is simply not the case,” the survivors said in their letter.
They cited the arrest last month of Clement Middle School teacher Joseph Michael Nardella, 53, of Highland, who is accused of sexually abusing a former student over a six-year period, beginning when he was 12 years old and continuing until the alleged victim was 17.
Additionally, the survivors say in their letter that a worst administrator threatened students who came forward with claims of abuse against a teacher, and that the district recently rehired a former principal alleged to have been involved in a cover-up of “two of the perpetrators in the district: Kevin Kirkland and Laura Whitehurst.”
“It is painfully clear that Superintendent Arellano and the current board of trustees are either unwilling or unable to continue governing this district in a manner that protects the children of Redlands from serial sexual predators whom they employ,” the letter said.
A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office confirmed Wednesday that the office was in receipt of the letter, but couldn’t comment further. “To protect its integrity, we’re unable to comment on any potential or ongoing investigation,” they said.
Neither Arellano nor Redlands Unified spokeswoman Christine Stephens responded to requests for comment Wednesday.
Two cases of problems
A yearlong investigation by the Southern California News Group revealed that, for nearly two decades, the district covered up allegations of sexual abuse involving students, allowed teachers to continue preying on students, and ordered and other staff not to cooperate with police during criminal investigations .
In most cases, school district administrators were aware of what was going on and failed as mandated reporters to take appropriate action. Mandated reporters are professionals who have regular contact with children — from clergy members to medical professionals to educators — and are required by law to report suspected sexual abuse.
Attorney Morgan Stewart, who wrote and sent the letter to Bonta on behalf of his clients, said in an email Wednesday that the letter “is a multi-step process in holding the District accountable for its failures that led to their abuse.”
“The survivors’ legacy lies in making Redlands Unified safer than it was when they attended schools in the District. It is time to hold the administration accountable, and we were pleased in putting this letter together to help this process,” Stewart said. “We truly believe that this process will bring about meaningful and thorough change in the District and to eliminate those individuals that failed to protect children.”
One of Lopez’s victims, who signed the letter and is not being identified because he is the victim of sexual abuse, said in an email Wednesday that district administrators who failed to properly act — not just the perpetrators of the crime — need to be held accountable for “the trauma inflicted on sex assault victims.”
He also said the district needs to do a better job of background checks and psychological screenings of prospective teachers before hiring them.
“Maybe if we started treating teachers’ backgrounds like we do with police officers and firefighters … then maybe we could filter out the people who wish to harm, molest and traumatize developing minds,” he said. “Until we intervene and demand RUSD behaves itself … then I’m not sure how many more kids have to end up like me.”
Rialto school administrators charged
In contrast to lack of action against any Redlands Unified administrators, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office filed felony child abuse charges Wednesday against two assistant principals at Wilmer Amina Carter High School for failing to report complaints about a 17-year-old student suspected of sexually assaulting three female students. Their failure allowed the abuse to continue, prosecutors said.
David Shenhan Yang, 38, and Natasha Harris, 37, were both charged with one felony count of child abuse under circumstances or conditions likely to cause great bodily injury or death as well as two misdemeanor counts of failure of a mandated reporter to report child abuse or neglect.
Additionally, Yang received an enhancement for having a prior felony conviction for embezzlement, according to the criminal complaint.
The District Attorney’s Office maintained the felony charges were warranted because Yang and Harris’ failure to report allowed for the continued sexual abuse of the students.
Rialto police cited the 17-year-old suspect for misdemeanor sexual battery on school grounds. Yang and Harris are expected to be arraigned no later than Friday in San Bernardino Superior Court, District Attorney Jason Anderson said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
While Anderson said he could not speak as to why no administrators were ever charged for failing to report student sexual abuse in Redlands under the leadership of his predecessor, Mike Ramos, he said the evidence against Yang and Harris is strong enough to warrant the charges.
“We would have not filed any of these charges unless we knew we could prove them beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.