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Principal faces probe over teacher held in abuse of 20 kids

January 24, 2013 |  4:58 pm

A now-retired principal faces a criminal investigation after school officials said she twice failed to report accusations of sexual misconduct by a teacher who this week was arrested on suspicion of molesting 19 students at a Wilmington elementary school.

In 2002 and 2008, the principal was told that the teacher, Robert Pimentel, 57, inappropriately touched a student. But the principal failed to tell law enforcement authorities, as required by law, said L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. The Los Angeles Police Department began investigating Pimentel in March, when they learned of more recent allegations at George de la Torre Elementary School.

LAPD Capt. Fabian Lizarraga said Thursday that detectives will launch an investigation into whether the principal, Irene Hinojosa, should face charges for failing to report alleged abuse. She could not be reached for comment Thursday.

It remains unclear why Hinojosa did not tell authorities about the accusations. The 2008 allegation also occurred at De la Torre. The 2002 allegation was made when Pimentel was a teacher and Hinojosa was the principal at Dominguez Elementary in Carson, Deasy said.

De la Torre school volunteer and parent Magdalena Gonzalez said Thursday that three years ago, a girl told her parents that Pimentel had playfully spanked students. Gonzalez also said she and other volunteers saw Pimentel pull on a student’s bra strap during a fifth-grade graduation ceremony.

Gonzalez alleged that Hinojosa was dismissive of their complaints and that she allowed Pimentel to have students in his classroom during recess and lunch despite their misgivings.

“We told her he was touching the girls,” Gonzalez said in Spanish.

School employees are required by law to report allegations of sexual misconduct to police. They also are supposed to report such issues to their supervisors, according to school district policies.

The revelations angered parents and once again placed the Los Angeles Unified School District under scrutiny over its handling of student abuse cases. A state audit released in November found that Los Angeles school officials failed to promptly report nearly 150 cases of suspected misconduct to state authorities, including allegations of sexual contact with students.

The audit resulted from the furor over the case of a Miramonte Elementary School teacher who was charged last year with allegedly spoonfeeding his semen to blindfolded students, feeding them tainted cookies and taking bizarre photos of them. The school had received previous complaints about the teacher, Mark Berndt, that had resulted in no discipline. Berndt has pleaded not guilty.

On Thursday, Deasy also took issue with the handling of the case by the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing. The commission failed to suspend or revoke the credential of either educator after the district informed the state of the allegations.

If Pimentel had applied to work as a substitute teacher at another school system, the state would have reported him in good standing as recently as Thursday.

A commission spokeswoman said Thursday that it cannot automatically suspend a teacher’s credential until charges are filed. But the commission does has the discretion to act sooner, said Erin Sullivan, who said she could not comment on specific cases.

Hinojosa’s case is “scheduled to be taken up by the commission” next Thursday at its regular meeting, she added.

Pimentel is charged with seven counts of lewd and lascivious acts with children younger than 14 and with eight felony counts of continuous sexual abuse involving eight victims. The charges cover September 2011 to March 2012, when Pimentel worked at De la Torre. He was charged with molesting 12 students, but police allege there are a total of 20 child victims.

He was taken into custody shortly after noon Wednesday and was being held on $2-million bail. Pimentel pleaded not guilty Thursday, and his attorney Richard Knickerbocker said his client is “absolutely innocent.”

Knickerbocker described the touching as appropriate, and said it falls within district policy.

In one instance, Pimentel hugged a girl and “gave her a kiss on the forehead,” Knickerbocker said. Pimentel never touched “any private parts.”

“Right now, we have accusations,” Knickerbocker said. “That's all.”

Prosecutor did not detail Pimentel’s alleged crimes in court papers.

But a law enforcment source close to the investigation said he allegedly touched children “multiple times over a period of time,”

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing, said Pimentel is accused of inappropriately touching 9- and 10-year-old girls, sometimes under their clothing and in their genital areas.

The alleged incidents occurred on the school grounds, often in his classroom. The alleged victims are mainly his students but also girls who helped in his classroom. Some students have stepped forward as witnesses to the touching of other students, authorities said.

District officials said they learned in March — when the police investigation was launched — that Hinojosa failed to report the earlier allegations.

Deasy said he then moved quickly to fire both teacher and principal. The dismissal was scheduled for the next Board of Education meeting, in April 2012, but Pimentel and Hinojosa resigned March 27, Deasy said.

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--Adolfo Flores in Wilmington, Howard Blume and Richard Winton

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