Allegations that a teacher abused students with disabilities are rocking an elementary school in Orange, with outraged parents questioning the rigor of an ongoing investigation.
About a half-dozen families pulled their children from Taft Elementary School the week of March 5 after belatedly learning that school administrators were told in January by staff members that Daniel Ryan Lentini, a special education teacher, was repeatedly physically abusing at least 12 students, documents and interviews allege.
Lentini threw rubber balls in the face of an autistic child, stood on a student’s back, flopped a child with severe spinal abnormalities over his shoulder and dragged a student with leg braces around the classroom by his legs, according to interviews and an employee’s complaint provided by an attorney for the parents.
Lentini also verbally teased and humiliated the children, many of whom are nonverbal due to their disabilities, according to the interviews and documents.
When confronted by parents, Lentini denied that any abuse took place, parents said.
Taft’s principal, Antoinette Coe, reportedly contacted the Orange Police Department about Jan. 10 after hearing about the accusations made by at least two classroom aides. But neither school administrators nor their supervisors at the Orange Unified School District contacted parents of the children, according to the documents and interviews.
Since learning of the allegations, at least five families have retained at least two attorneys and filed four claims with the district. And at least one aide in Lentini’s classrooms filed an employee complaint.
Orange police are currently investigating the case and will refer it to District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, according to a police spokesman.
Most parents were informed of the alleged offenses on Saturday, March 3, when the class aides met with about a dozen families at the house of one of the alleged victims.
When the parents learned that almost three months had passed since complaints first were raised with Coe, they became enraged, said Cesar Pineda, who hosted the meeting. Fresh in their minds was the scandal at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles, where parents apparently were kept in the dark about teacher sexual abuse of students.
“I asked what the hell was he doing?” said Pineda when he learned that his seven-year-old autistic son had been struck with rubber balls. “That was the final straw. I broke down crying.”
Both Coe and Superintendent Michael L. Christensen declined to comment Tuesday. Lentini also couldn’t be reached for comment. Parents said they were told he was “transferred” to another school.
Repeated Calls Unanswered
Pineda said he called Orange police that March Saturday. Two officers came to the home where the meeting was held and took reports from several individuals, he said. But days went by without hearing from the police, and it took repeated calls to the department headquarters for the detective assigned to the case to contact him, Pineda said.
Pineda, a 38-year-old manager at an auto parts manufacturer, said he eventually learned the detective, Leslie Franco, had been assigned the case in January.
In an interview April 17, Orange Police Sgt. Dan Adams said it was “weird” the school hadn’t told the parents of the allegations earlier. He noted it would be “quite unusual” for a detective to take so long to follow up. Franco is concluding the investigation and the results will be referred to Rackauckas, Adams said.
Pineda said he called Orange County Child Protective Services agency about the allegations on March 5. He said the agency declined to take a report, saying a complaint had to come from the school. The agency’s policy is to not comment on its interactions with families, but a spokeswoman said typically such a parent call would generate a report to police.
Pineda said he never heard back from the agency.
That same day, Pineda said, he and several other parents went en mass to the Taft special education classroom, where they confronted Lentini.
“One parent told him: ‘We know you are abusing our children,’ ” said Pineda. “He had a cocky posture. He said he never touched a child.” As Lentini went to leave, Pineda said he challenged him not to “run away,” but the teacher left and didn’t return.
Shortly thereafter, the principal called administrators at district headquarters, and several attended a hastily convened assembly of angry parents in a classroom at Taft.
After that meeting, parents were told by the district’s human resources administrator, Ed Kissee, that the complaint was handled in January as that of “a disgruntled employee,” Pineda said.
“That is the words he used,” said Pineda. He added that Kissee told him officials “deemed there wasn’t sufficient evidence” of the allegations.
On March 12, Newport Beach attorney Jack H. Anthony filed claims against the district on behalf of four of the children. The claims named Lentini and that asserted between Aug. 25 and March 7 students were “exposed to an oppressive environment created by the teacher’s regular harassment and abuse.”
Such claims are a preliminary step before filing a lawsuit. The district’s board has not responded to the claims, Anthony said. The Orange Unified trustee for the Taft area, Alexia Deligianni, didn’t respond to phone or email inquiries.
After Principal Coe learned of the abuse allegations and two months before Anthony filed his claims, an aide in Lentini’s classroom filed an employee complaint statement. That aide and others declined to be interviewed by a reporter, saying they fear retaliation from the school district. Parents said the district hired a private investigator to interview them, but some declined.
The aide’s complaint, which was provided to Voice of OC by Anthony, states that the class aides initially were reluctant to report Lentini’s actions to Coe because the two were very friendly. Coe indirectly learned of the aides’ concerns after a school psychologist was told of the abuse allegations. Coe denied friendship with Lentini, the document states.
The document also notes the aides feared being blamed for not reporting the allegations sooner.
At a Jan. 13 meeting, Coe ordered an aide to destroy a cell phone recording she had made of the teacher allegedly teasing a student, and Coe “said that none of the parents would be made aware of the situation,” the document states.
Included with the statement were four pages describing which students were involved, the alleged offenses, dates, locations and details of student responses. According to the statement, nine of the students are boys and three are girls.
The document alleges that on Jan. 10 the teacher “playfully” was “slapping” a boy’s checks, but the aides considered it “definitely inappropriate.” In November, the teacher “stood” on a boy’s back during “rough playing.” Another boy was punched “with a close fist,” producing tears, and another with leg braces was dragged around the classroom by his legs, the document asserts.
The teacher also would “cuddle” with two of the girls, one of them usually sitting on his lap, the statement alleges.
The aide was troubled by the failure to inform or interview the parents, the complaint states. “I would definitely want to know about it and want to have the option of transferring to another school or classroom,” the statement asserted.
This is what happened to some of the children after the March 5 parental revolt.
Pineda said the district’s response to the allegations only further angered him and other parents, as they had seen unexplained bruises on their children at various times since the school year began late in August.
He said that around October, his wife, Nereida Pineda, 36, went to the school after they noted unusual bruising along their son’s thigh. At the school, she was referred to Lentini, who, her husband said, “brushed her off,” denying knowledge of the bruises, which he attributed possibly to playground activities.
As the December holidays approached, Pineda said, he and his wife noticed marked changes in their son’s behavior, including becoming more withdrawn, long crying spells and lack of enthusiasm for his normal enjoyments. At the time, they attributed this to his disability.
“He was going downhill,” said Pineda. “Then everything started to add up” after the March 3 meeting. “We trusted the school — left everything to them,” he said.
Last week upon returning from the Easter holiday, Pineda says, he had a message from a detective, who was seeking a photo of his son’s bruises.
But Anthony, Pineda’s attorney, said the detective earlier had told some clients that prosecution was unlikely. And in late January, the aide’s complaint letter states, Coe told her she had “discussed the matter” with police and was told the allegations “are not abuse,” since “there is no evidence (bruises, etc.) or specific times or dates.”
Still angry, Pineda said: “It smells of the biggest cover-up.”
Voice of OC contributing writer Rex Dalton can be reached directly at [email protected]