An assistant principal charged in the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old student rose through the ranks of the L.A. school district despite accusations of having dated another pupil.
By Robert J. Lopez and Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
April 20, 2008 — Stephen T. Rooney was looking for a promotion. He had been a teacher and dean at Foshay Learning Center for more than five years and was ready to rise in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Among his recommendations was a glowing letter from Foshay's principal, Veronique D. Wills, who said he "is highly capable of making significant contributions to the educational community."
Seven months later, in September 2006, Rooney was assigned to Fremont High in South Los Angeles as an assistant principal.
He was arrested in February 2007 for allegedly threatening the stepfather of a then-16-year-old Foshay student he had reportedly been dating, according to police records and interviews.
When no charges were filed, school district officials -- apparently violating their own policy -- transferred Rooney as an assistant principal to Markham Middle School in Watts.
Rooney, 39, was arrested again last month.
He is now in jail, awaiting trial on five counts of committing forcible lewd acts against a 13-year-old Markham student. Rooney pleaded not guilty March 19 and is being held on $1 million bail.
Dmitry Gorin, Rooney's attorney, said his client has done nothing wrong. He said there is "no physical evidence" that proves the charges. Rooney is an educator committed to helping youths and a patriot who serves as a captain in the California National Guard, Gorin said.
The latest arrest has raised questions about why L.A. Unified officials failed to heed signs some parents, teachers and former students say were apparent as Rooney climbed the district's promotional ladder. They say he was prone to angry outbursts with staff and appeared overly friendly with some female students.
During his time at Foshay, Rooney allegedly flirted with girls he taught, collected photos of them and lavished the 16-year-old he allegedly dated with gifts that included a designer purse and an iPod, according to interviews with her relatives and former students.
Rooney began his career in L.A. Unified in 2000 at Peary Middle School in Gardena, where he took over a rowdy eighth-grade science class midyear. He received a letter of recommendation from a colleague in June 2000. "He instilled order [and] discipline and had a sincere concern for the students," Frank Greger wrote.
In an interview, Greger said Rooney was dedicated but wanted to teach physical education. He found that opportunity at Foshay, a kindergarten through 12th-grade campus near the Coliseum.
After arriving there in 2001, Rooney taught high school physical education, coached the boys' junior varsity basketball team and taught life skills, according to Wills' letter.
With his close-cropped brown hair and clean-shaven face, Rooney had a youthful look. He rode a Triumph motorcycle.
Rooney "tried to be cool" by telling jokes, and he appeared to favor girls who would "flirt" with him and give him photos, said Lina Aldana, who graduated last year and now attends UC Santa Barbara.
"He would only flirt with the girls that allowed him to," Aldana said in an e-mail.
Another former student, who received a "C" in Rooney's life skills class, praised him as "very fair and fun . . . strict as all teachers need to be."
The former student, who asked not to be identified, said Rooney "was too friendly with everyone -- that's why everybody loved him so much -- and young, impressionable girls thought he was infatuated with them."
Foshay graduate Cristina Melendez, now at Cal State Long Beach, described Rooney in an e-mail as "a wonderful teacher as well as friend."
While working at Foshay, Rooney earned a master's degree in administration from Pepperdine University in 2003. (Rooney's teaching and administrative credentials were suspended March 18, according to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing.)
Rooney's first arrest came two years after he apparently began mentoring the Foshay girl. And, in November 2005, Rooney and other teachers were invited to the girl's quinceañera, or 15th birthday party, at the family's house.
Family members, who asked not to be named to protect their privacy, said they considered Rooney an advisor who wanted to help.
But by mid-2006, that had changed, they said.
The girl began visiting him at his loft near Staples Center, family members said. The pair went on motorcycle rides and hung out at the mall, at Marina del Rey and at the L.A. Zoo.
About that same time, Rooney divorced his wife of 10 years, court records show.
Relatives recalled seeing Rooney fight with the girl, once breaking her cellphone. When they asked her to stop seeing him, they said she would plead with them not to get involved.
The mother said she didn't confront Rooney or report him to school officials because she feared he would harm her daughter.
In May 2006, the family said, Rooney took the girl on a trip to New York City, where relatives believed the pair went to look at colleges.
Gorin, Rooney's attorney, maintains that the educator "didn't do anything criminal in that relationship."
When he arrived at Fremont High in fall 2006, Rooney oversaw discipline on the 5,000-student campus.
"He was well-liked," recalled John Mullens, who has taught at Fremont for 32 years.
Matthew Taylor, the union chapter chairman, said Rooney earned the respect of teachers because he sought their views on school improvement.
But he said Rooney quickly displayed an angry side, including the time he allegedly got into a shoving match with a teacher, who later filed a grievance. (That complaint was dropped when Rooney was transferred after his February arrest.)
Taylor said he alerted Fremont Principal Larry Higgins. His office referred calls seeking comment to district headquarters, where spokeswoman Susan Cox declined to discuss the case, citing an ongoing internal investigation.
Meanwhile, Rooney was still seeing the Foshay student, her family members said.
The girl's stepfather said in an interview that he and Rooney had an altercation when the educator showed up at their home smelling of alcohol and threatened him with a gun.
Police investigated whether to charge Rooney, but prosecutors did not file charges because the girl said Rooney did not threaten her stepfather, according to Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.
Interviewed by detectives, the girl "admitted . . . that she has had an ongoing sexual relationship with Steve Rooney," according to an affidavit filed with a search warrant.
In the latest case, Rooney is alleged to have committed lewd acts on at least two occasions against the Markham student, including once in his school office, Deputy Dist. Atty. Darci Lanphere said in court. She alleged that Rooney wanted to take the girl to Florida.
smf: Rooney is innocent until proven guilty.
However he should never have been returned to a school setting after the initial accusations were made and remained unresolved; the rights of children must outweigh the rights of adults in cases like this.