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Mourning for teacher found dead in forest

September 27, 2010 | 12:05 pm

Rigoberto RuelasA teacher whose body was found underneath a bridge in the Angeles National Forest appears to have committed suicide, authorities said Monday as students and teachers at his school mourned his death.

The body of Rigoberto Ruelas was found Sunday morning around the Big Tujunga Canyon area in the Angeles National Forest, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Members of a search-and-rescue team that were training nearby came across Ruelas' vehicle, officials said. They searched a ravine about 100 feet below a nearby bridge and found Ruelas' body.

"Based upon the entirety of the investigation, the evidence indicates he took his own life in this tragedy," Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. Mike Parker said.

Ruelas' death stunned students and teachers at Miramonte Elementary School in South L.A., where he was described as a popular and energetic teacher. Parents, students, fellow teachers and others placed flowers and cards in front of the school. Crisis counselors were on campus to help students or teachers who sought help.

"You were an example for each one of your students and a friend for all," a hand-painted banner said in Spanish. "R.I.P. Mr. Ruelas."

The school principal, and officials of the Los Angeles Unified School District and the teachers union officials held a meeting with teachers and staff early Monday, and about 100 parents turned out for an emotional meeting with school officials after that.

"We are doing our best to come together as a school, as a family, to support our children, who are deeply affected by this, and also the teachers," said Principal Martin Sandoval.

"We would like to express our personal condolences to the family of Mr. Rigaberto Ruelas," LAUSD Supt. Ramon Cortines said in a statement. "Mr. Ruelas was a passionate and caring teacher, who put his students first. He made a difference in the lives of so many in his classroom, and by staying after the bell rang to tutor students. He encouraged his students to do better and aim higher, that they too could go to college. In addition, during his 14 years of teaching, Mr. Ruelas had nearly perfect attendance. We need more teachers like him."

Amid the mourning, people were trying to understand what caused Ruelas to take his own life.

KABC-TV Channel 7 quoted family members as saying that Ruelas was distraught about scoring low in a teacher-rating database recently made public by The Times. He had been missing since Sept. 22. South Gate Police Officer Tony Mendez told KCAL-TV Channel 9 that Ruelas was unhappy at his database ranking.

But South Gate Police Lt. Francis Arocha said he could not confirm any details about the death and referred all questions about the initial statements to a department captain, who could not be reached. Parker said that the Sheriff's Department had been told by South Gate police that Ruelas was upset over the Times' database, but he added that he was unsure where that information came from.

In the database, Ruelas is listed as "less effective than average overall." He rated "less effective" in math and "average" in English.

The president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which has come out strongly against the public release of teacher names and "value-added" ratings, released a statement calling on The Times to take down the database, saying the union "predicted there would be problems."

The Times on Sunday evening released a statement noting authorities were still investigating the case, adding: "We extend our sympathy to his family."

-- Robert Faturechi, Alexandra Zavis and Tony Barboza

Photo: Rigoberto Ruelas. Credit: South Gate Police Department