An independent panel has concluded that JSerra Catholic High School officials acted in an “appropriate and prompt manner” regarding accusations that a teacher engaged in sexual misconduct with a former student.
A report released to the media exonerated school officials, while recommending some tightening of procedures. It also shed new light on accusations against Ricardo Aldana, a former Spanish teacher and coach of two school athletic teams.
In December, , who is a minor. JSerra officials immediately terminated him.
Shortly after the arrest, Frank Talarico, then-president and CEO of the school (he has since left to lead Goodwill of Orange County), convened an independent committee to review the school’s internal policies. The committee consisted of:
- Former California Secretary of Education Marian Bergeson
- Dennis O’Neill, former city attorney and mayor of Newport Beach
- James Prendergast, senior vice president and general counsel of the UCC Division of First American Title Insurance Corp. and adjunct professor at Pepperdine and Loyola of Los Angeles law schools
- Retired Orange County Superior Court Judge Pamela Iles
Prendergast served as the primary investigator, according to the committee's recently completed report.
In , Talarico said the girl left the school in June 2011, and the alleged sex acts took place in September 2011. He said JSerra learned of the allegations at the time of the arrest in December.
But a lawyer hired by the 14-year-old girl and her family has said the school actually learned of the allegations months before the arrest and did nothing.
Because of the pending criminal proceedings – and has his next court appearance April 13 – the girl and her attorney, Vincent Finaldi, did not participate in the JSerra inquiry.
According to the panel, Aldana invited the girl to the movies, but she declined. He would also regularly phone her between 11 p.m. and midnight. The girl’s mom reportedly told school officials her daughter had a “huge crush” on Aldana.
But the committee concluded the information provided by the mother was not enough to “suspect child abuse or child exploitation.” Although Aldana's alleged phone calls and movie invitation may have violated the school’s employee handbook, they didn't reach the threshold requiring JSerra to report him to law enforcement or Child Protective Services. (State law requires school employees to report any suspicions of child molestation to authorities.)
“The sole question of importance to be addressed by the external committee was whether JSerra had ‘reasonable grounds to suspect’ that a reportable event had occurred,” the report said. “JSerra, and in particular it’s [sic] former President Frank Talarico, acted in an appropriate and prompt manner.”
Because the mother “alleged no physical conduct at all … the lack of an alleged physical encounter almost by definition precludes a conclusion of a reasonable ground to suspect child abuse or exploitation,” the report concluded.
Talarico first talked to the mother on Nov. 9 [Finaldi has said it was earlier] and then confronted Aldana the next day, the report said. The teacher denied all allegations. However, the school placed him on leave on advice from the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Orange.
Talarico asked the mother and former student to come in to discuss the allegations in person, but the mother declined and said she didn’t mean to make a “big deal,” according to the report.
So, on Nov. 11, the school reinstated Aldana. Talarico then sent a letter to the mom saying he could not take the investigation any further.
The report applauded Talarico for looking into the matter even though there was no reportable offense.
“Rather than being criticized with the benefit of hindsight, Mr. Talarico and JSerra should be recognized for acting as they should,” the report said.
The report also detailed the process Aldana followed to become a teacher at JSerra, including a fingerprint scan to reveal any possible criminal record and an application question that asked whether he had ever been accused of child abuse. Aldana answered no, the report said.
The panel addressed reports that similar accusations may have surfaced at a previous job, when Aldana taught at Hawthorne High in the Centinela Valley Union High School District. The panel tried to find out why Aldana was put on leave there and eventually not elected for rehire but could not get an answer.
“The external committee leaves it to others to evaluate the actions of the Centinela Valley Union High School District and Hawthorne High School,” the report said. “However [JSerra officials] have made it clear that Mr. Aldana would not have been hired by JSerra had any of the allegations involving Mr. Aldana’s actions at Hawthorne High School been in the record of the school or regulatory agencies.”
The report said JSerra did “all that could reasonably be expected” before hiring Aldana.
If there’s one area to improve, it’s JSerra's relationship with the diocese, the report said. JSerra is an independent school. However, the panel recommended JSerra be brought under “direct authority of the Diocese on matters of safe environment” because otherwise it is “cut off from needed expertise and resources.”
The former student's lawyer said the "hand-picked" committee's findings were no surprise.
"The victim and her mother will provide an appropriate response to this report once the criminal process against Mr. Aldana has concluded," Finaldi told Patch.
The lawyer said the report should be considered preliminary and incomplete until that time.
Finaldi also said JSerra officials owe the girl and her family an apology, but added, "We are not surprised none was sent."