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Struggles persist for exonerated teacher
By FERMIN LEAL and SCOTT MARTINDALE



Christopher Ontiveros was a popular and dedicated teacher of Advanced Placement history, working alongside his wife at Orange County's top high school – a place that scoops up the brightest and most motivated students from across the region.

When Ontiveros, a teacher of nine years and a father of five children, learned that one of his students at Oxford Academy in Cypress was struggling with home issues and couldn't study for upcoming exams, he took action.

He and his wife met with the 17-year-old girl's mother and agreed to let her stay in an RV on their property to study. They even had the family sign a release document, so everything would be on the up and up.

It's an act few expect from a teacher, no matter how dedicated.

It's also an act some expect will end Ontiveros' career as a teacher.

That's because there are two versions of the tale of Ontiveros' undoing, and the second one has a lot more staying power in the minds of those who oversee schools.

SEX CRIMES

Both versions – chronicled in Anaheim Union documents obtained by The Orange County Register – start with a report by the girl to school officials in fall 2009.

But the second version accuses Ontiveros of engaging in a series of illicit sexual encounters with the student, pursuing the relationship during the eight nights she stayed in his RV. The student backed up her accusation with 11 pages of text messages apparently referring to multiple sex acts and other inappropriate behavior between the two.

The messages, transcribed from the student's phone by the school's principal, are overwhelming to read. They are filled with song lyrics, invitations to trysts and emotional outbursts.

On paper, matters looked really bad for Ontiveros.

"Whenever a teacher is accused of a sex crime, there is always a rush to tar and feather that person," said Dale Fiola, an attorney representing Ontiveros, who declined to comment.

Orange County prosecutors acted quickly, arresting Ontiveros in October 2009 and charging him in January 2010 with five felony counts of sex acts with a 17-year-old female student.

Anaheim Union acted quickly, removing him from the classroom and placing him on unpaid leave.

The state acted quickly, suspending his teaching credential.

Shut out of his job and profession, Ontiveros faced the bleak prospect of years behind bars.

The only problem? Jurors didn't buy it.

His 10-day trial concluded in June 2011 with an acquittal on all counts.

Documents in Ontiveros' school district file say that jurors simply didn't find the girl credible. Prosecutors weren't able to overcome a theory advanced by Ontiveros' attorney that the girl had sent the texts to herself using a computer, to create the appearance they had come from Ontiveros.

And with that acquittal, Ontiveros' problems seemed to run in reverse.

The court case was over.

His school repaid him $229,881 in income lost during his unpaid leave.

And the state teacher licensing board cleared Ontiveros to return to the classroom in August 2011.

But accusations like this often carry other penalties, regardless of the criminal outcome.

LINGERING IN LIMBO

Despite clearance by the jury, Christopher Ontiveros' teaching career lingers in limbo.

The student's family filed a civil case against Ontiveros and the district.

Anaheim Union officials said that he was unfit to teach, placed him back on unpaid leave and have been pressing to fire him ever since.

And although Ontiveros has an active teaching license, some say it's unlikely he will ever find work in a classroom.

An administrative hearing is set before a three-member state panel on Dec. 6. The panel could decide whether there is cause for Anaheim Union to terminate Ontiveros.

Ontiveros "demonstrated immoral conduct, unfitness for service, and has persistently violated or refused to obey school laws," Russell Lee-Sung, the district's assistant superintendent of human resources, wrote in documents prepared for the school board in September 2011 arguing for the teacher's termination.

Lee-Sung and other Anaheim Union administrators have declined Register requests for comment on case specifics, citing personnel privacy rules.

District documents show that following Ontiveros' acquittal, district officials continued to assert as fact the female student's accusations against him. Officials also accused Ontiveros of violating other district policies, including giving the girl academic credit for work she never completed and lying to and disobeying the school's principal, Kathy Scott.

Specifically, Anaheim Union officials say Scott told Ontiveros in a March 2009 meeting that it would be inappropriate to have the girl move into his RV. Ontiveros ignored Scott and moved the girl into the RV without the principal's knowledge, officials said.

Ontiveros has maintained his innocence throughout. He has also said Scott was fully aware of his plan to move the girl into the RV and never objected.

STANDARDS DIFFER

In legal documents presented to the Anaheim Union school board arguing for his reinstatement, Ontiveros said Lee-Sung ignored the jury's verdict clearing him. He accused the administrator of bias and lack of objectivity.

But experts say it's important to remember that the school district's case for Ontiveros' termination is built independently from his criminal prosecution. It will be decided under a different burden of proof.

Jurors were asked whether the allegations could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt; the school district need only demonstrate that a preponderance of the evidence supports dismissal.

"It's more difficult to fire a teacher if there's not a criminal conviction, but you don't need a conviction to fire a teacher," said Ronald Wenkart, an attorney for the Orange County Department of Education.

School districts commonly build teacher dismissal cases using a much broader set of facts and accusations that don't necessarily constitute criminal wrongdoing, experts say.

If a teacher has been warned or written up for unprofessional or inappropriate behaviors in the past, and the district can demonstrate a pattern of crossing a line, those elements alone could be a strong case for termination, said San Francisco-based lawyer Laura Schulkind, president of the California Council of School Attorneys.

"There could be a whole host of other things that are relevant in a termination case that are not criminal," Schulkind said. "It's a completely different forum for a criminal case vs. a teacher dismissal."

That's why some experts and educators say Ontiveros' days as a teacher could be over, regardless of the outcome of his battle with Anaheim Union.

"When someone is accused, it is difficult to take away the taint. Some people who have been accused and acquitted are forced to leave the area because their reputation has been so damaged," said Michael Stone, a trustee with the California Teachers Association. "That is why we fight so adamantly that people who are accused receive due process and their day in court. We need to protect everyone."

Contact the writer: 714-796-2258 or fleal@ocregister.com



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