During five years as a frequent substitute teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, George Hernandez was investigated by police three times for allegations of sexual misconduct involving students.
Although he was never arrested, Hernandez resigned a week after the third investigation in 2007.
But his teaching career wasn’t over.
Weeks later, he joined the roster of substitutes in the Inglewood Unified School District and taught there for nearly three years — until police discovered a videotape they say shows him molesting a second-grade girl at school. Hernandez, now 45, was charged but then fled and remains at large.
Experts said they can’t understand why the Los Angeles school district allowed Hernandez to teach for so long despite the accusations.
“This guy should not have been kept in the district,” said Kathleen Carroll, an attorney who worked for the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing. “This is an outrage.”
L.A. Unified is looking into the situation but has found no evidence that it ever reported Hernandez to the state credentialing commission, said David Holmquist, the district’s general counsel. The commission could have suspended or revoked Hernandez’s credential, preventing other school districts from hiring him.
For its part, the Inglewood school district violated its own procedures by not fully vetting Hernandez’s background before hiring him.
A civil lawsuit brought by the mother of the Inglewood student alleges that L.A. Unified is liable for not taking action against Hernandez before he could harm her daughter. The Times generally does not publish the names of alleged victims of sex crimes.
“This is no different than moving an aberrant priest from one area to another,” said Sanford Jossen, a Manhattan Beach attorney representing the girl.
Teachers accused of sexual misconduct but never convicted have long presented school districts with a challenge because of their employment protections. But substitute teachers serve at the will of districts and can be released or fired at any time.
In the last month, several L.A. Unified employees have been accused of abuse. The most explosive case centers on Mark Berndt, a teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood of South Los Angeles who is charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct against students. Berndt allegedly took hundreds of photographs showing students blindfolded and gagged, and in some cases, being spoon-fed what authorities believe was his semen.
The school had several prior complaints about Berndt: an allegation in the 1990-91 school year that he appeared to masturbate behind his desk; a claim of inappropriate touching in 1994; and, more recently, complaints by parents about his penchant for photographing students.
The first allegation against Hernandez came in 2004, a year after he started teaching in L.A. Unified, records show. He was accused of touching himself while reading to a student at Figueroa Elementary School in South Los Angeles. Investigators talked to the alleged victim, but prosecutors deemed the evidence insufficient and rejected the case, according to Los Angeles Police Department officials.
The department looked at Hernandez again in 2006, after three girls at 68th Street Elementary School, also in South L.A., reported that he patted or rubbed their backs, shoulders and buttocks in a way that made them uncomfortable. Investigators could confirm no sexual conduct and, again, made no arrest.
In 2007, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department investigated an allegation at Russell Elementary School in Florence-Firestone that Hernandez had touched a girl’s genitals on multiple occasions. Prosecutors again declined to pursue the case.
Hernandez’s last day of work in L.A. Unified was in June 2007, according to employment records. District officials said Hernandez resigned the following Sept. 28.
The officials declined to discuss the circumstances of his departure. Huntington Park police reported that Hernandez left L.A. Unified, which serves students in that city, “in lieu of termination.” Their source was a school police officer.
The district was not legally obligated to report Hernandez to the commission after the 2004 or 2006 allegations because he was not disciplined or charged with a crime and he kept working for the district, said experts, including former commission attorneys. But when Hernandez resigned in 2007, he was under a cloud of suspicion — circumstances that legal experts said should have compelled the district to notify the commission.
The commission automatically revokes certification for teachers convicted of sexually abusing students and often chooses to do the same in cases of those who are accused but not convicted.
“Whether the police say they’re going to do something or not, you submit a report to the state and you let the state decide whether or not there’s enough evidence,” said Robert R. Barner, a former L.A. Unified assistant superintendent and a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University. “You have an ethical and moral obligation to make sure children are protected.”
When Hernandez applied to the Inglewood district in October 2007, the state commission verified a current and clean credential, according to personnel records reviewed by The Times. And with no history of arrests or charges ever filed, he also passed a standard criminal background check.
Inglewood Unified requires teachers applying for jobs to submit three letters of recommendation that are less than a year old. All of Hernandez’s letters predated his teaching career. There is no indication that Inglewood Unified spoke with anybody in L.A. Unified before hiring Hernandez.
Inglewood Supt. Gary McHenry, school board President Johnny Young and a lawyer representing the district declined to be interviewed.
Between January 2008 and August 2010, Hernandez taught 403 days at 15 Inglewood schools, according to district records. His first long-term assignment was at Beulah Payne Elementary, where he filled in for a teacher on maternity leave starting in February 2008.
It was during that time, police say, that Hernandez molested a second-grade girl, who was 7 at the time.
The alleged abuse went undiscovered until September 2010, when an 11-year-old girl reported that a man in an SUV had pulled up to her outside L.A. Unified’s Gage Middle School in Huntington Park and exposed himself. A license plate number led Huntington Park police to Hernandez.
Detectives searched his garage apartment and found 157 videotapes — two dozen of which included material that they deemed “inappropriate.”
The 14-minute video of the second-grader is described in a police report reviewed by The Times. Alone with her in his classroom, Hernandez can be seen reaching under her clothing and pulling her onto his lap. At one point, another student enters the room and Hernandez sternly orders her to leave, the report says.
The report also describes videos showing different classrooms where Hernandez allegedly hid cameras and sought to focus in on the chests and groins of elementary school students. Investigators determined that several tapes were made in a classroom at L.A. Unified’s Martin Luther King Elementary in South Los Angeles, where Hernandez had a long-term assignment in 2005.
Other scenes appeared to be shot from Hernandez’s car and show young girls at the beach. In one video, the camera zooms in on a naked toddler.
Hernandez was charged with one count of indecent exposure and a second count of possessing child pornography.
He missed a court date in September 2010 and became a fugitive. Huntington Park Det. Jose Macias said relatives told him Hernandez is living in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
According to a police report, Hernandez opened up to his interrogators in 2010, confessing that he was fighting an increasing attraction to underage girls and an addiction to child pornography.
“He said that he feels his mind is ruined,” a detective wrote.
Hernandez told the detectives that he had been sexually abused by a Boy Scout troop leader when he was 6 and that he was introduced to pornographic images of children in 2000 at a local seminary, where he had earned a degree in philosophy and considered the priesthood before taking up teaching.
Source: L.A. Times