Parents Angry About Outcome of Student Abuse Probe

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Orange Unified School District offices.

Prosecutors have declined to file criminal charges against a teacher for allegedly abusing special education students at the Orange Unified School District's Taft Elementary School, a decision that has angered parents who have insisted their children were abused.

There wasn’t sufficient evidence to warrant a criminal charge against Daniel Ryan Lentini, said Cyril Yu, the deputy district attorney assigned the case. But, he added, “That wasn’t to say there wasn’t conduct that was inappropriate.”

Yu said his office referred the allegations against Lentini to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the agency that certifies teachers, after rejecting criminal charges on Aug. 29. “The feeling was an administrative remedy may be more appropriate,” Yu said.

At least one parent filed a complaint last March against Lentini with the credentialing commission but received no reply.

As of last week, Lentini still had his teaching credential.

Parents insisted that the DA and other officials did not properly investigate the abuse allegations.

Alleged Abuse of at Least 11 Children

In January 2012, a classroom aide who worked under Lentini at Taft Elementary School filed a complaint alleging that Lentini physically or verbally abused at least 11 children.

According to the complaint, Lentini punched, pinched, tossed about and stood upon children who have various disabilities, including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism. The children are nonverbal and could not recount the events.

Families of at least six of the children have filed lawsuits against Lentini and Orange Unified in Orange County Superior Court. The cases have been consolidated, and the process of discovery and depositions is set to begin soon.

The few parents who would speak for the record alleged a systematic effort by officials to hide any wayward events and ensure no disciplinary action.

“It was very unprofessional, lazy, deceptive,” said Caesar Pineda, whose autistic, 7-year-old son allegedly was physically abused. “I hate to use the word cover-up, but that is what it was. They wanted us to go away so they could find an easy way to make everything go away. I am not going to go away.”

Ed Kissee, assistant superintendent of human resources for the Orange Unified School District, said he couldn’t discuss any aspect of the case because it is a personnel matter. Lentini is on administrative leave but still an employee, Kissee said. Lentini couldn’t be reached for comment, but school reports say he denied the allegations.

Questions Regarding the Investigation

Interviews with parents and their attorneys, as well as school reports and complaints since the first allegations were made, reflect issues with the investigation:

  • Laurie James-Engler, the aide who made the initial complaint, was quickly branded a “disgruntled employee” by school administrators, according to one of the parents, which both James-Engler and the parents say is retaliatory. James-Engler, who said she is a former paralegal, said she was dropped as PTA secretary, moved to another school to work and 11 times since has had her applications for other district jobs rejected.
  • Parents say they were initially kept in the dark about the allegations and were never thoroughly interviewed by school personnel, Orange police or the district attorney’s investigator.
  • When Newport Beach-based attorney Jack H. Anthony, who represents four of the families, contacted police in Orange to provide evidence, documents show this confidential information was provided to a private investigator working for Orange Unified. “That certainly was not proper,” Anthony said.

On April 4, Anthony wrote Police Detective Leslie Franco in Orange offering evidence from his clients “substantiating the allegations of child abuse against Mr. Lentini.”

Anthony heard nothing from Franco but received an April 13 letter from Nicole Miller, a private investigator working for Parker & Covert, a Tustin law firm hired by Orange Unified to investigate Lentini’s conduct.

Miller wrote it had "come to our attention” that Anthony had communicated with Franco regarding possessing evidence against Lentini.

On April 16, Anthony wrote to detective Franco that it was “quite a surprise” that she “would be sharing” his letter with a private investigator for Orange Unified.

In the letter, Anthony described some events the children allegedly experienced, including Lentini dragging a boy with cerebral palsy by his braced leg and standing on the back of an 11-year-old girl.

Thereafter, he said, he got no response from either Franco or  Miller.

One Anthony client, Pineda, said he originally had no intention of suing the district. But when the district’s private investigator contacted him he became fearful that officials might try to impugn his family.

After a conversation, he felt the police were misrepresenting the aides’ complaints, and he lost confidence in them, said Pineda. He noted he had a cell phone with photos of his son’s bruises. “But I wasn’t going to give it to police after what happened,” said Pineda.

Police spokesman Sgt. Fred Lopez did not return calls for comment. Miller, the chief investigator for T. Davis & Associates of Dana Point, declined comment.

The parents began filing their cases against the district after a meeting in March with the the two aides in Lentini’s class — James-Engler and Courtni Laughlin — described to parents what they had seen. That evening, Pineda called police in Orange, and patrol officers arrived to take statements.

Pineda and other parents say they had little or no contact with police thereafter and weren’t contacted by the district attorney’s investigator, Nasario Solis.

Solis declined comment. Yu said at least one family was contacted.

Last summer, Solis interviewed both class aides, who were videotaped re-enacting Lentini’s alleged offenses. James-Engler also provided Solis with copy of an audiotape she had made of Lentini’s statements to children.

“He [Solis] told me he wished I had made more tapes,” James-Engler said.

After the interview, James-Engler said Solis told the aides: “I believe you girls.” But Solis added the decision to file charges was up to prosecutors.

In an interview, Yu said his office even now would consider any evidence parents may wish to provide, as more investigation could occur.

Afraid to Speak

Some parents are afraid to speak for fear that the district will retaliate by denying their children services. Orange Unified has been aggressively resisting some family requests, even suing parents in federal court to block services.

Last March, Suzi Quinones, the mother of a child with Down syndrome who reportedly was abused by Lentini, filed a public records request with Orange Unified about the allegations. An Oct. 30 a responding letter was sent to her by Kissee, along with school reports.

Kissee wrote that county prosecutors declined to file charges, adding “the district’s investigation into this matter is concluded.”

But in a Nov. 27 interview with Voice of OC, Kissee said Lentini’s case “was still under review.”

In an Oct. 8 letter to Orange Unified, Parker & Covert attorney Steven Montanez wrote that the law firm’s inquiry determined: “There is no basis to conclude Lentini engaged in child abuse or any other unlawful behavior. The allegations of student mistreatment and inappropriate misconduct are without merit.”

Asked what she thought of the overall inquiry, Quinones said: “Wow, I am disgusted by it. I am sickened by the fact they tried to make [the aide] look bad when she was the only one who did the right thing.”

Quinones, who is a graphics designer, said her son is now at another school in Orange Unified, which is providing wonderful assistance.

Pineda, a general manager at a manufacturing firm, struggles to stifle his emotions when discussing the allegations that Lentini repeatedly grabbed his son by the neck and also threw rubber balls at his face.

Pineda said he now is treated like a marked man when he drops the boy off at his new school. “I have to speak for my son,” he said. “I am his voice.”

Please contact Rex Dalton directly at rexdalton@aol.com

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