Charging Two Carter High School Vice Principals With Felonies Over One
Student’s Assaults Of Schoolmates Won’t Fly In Her Courtroom, Judge Tells DA
San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson’s bold and what many educators, healthcare professionals and legal scholars considered to be a gratuitously aggressive prosecution of two Rialto Unified School District assistant principals on felony child abuse charges stemming from a student’s sexual exploitation of at least two of his schoolmates has hit an apparent dead end.
Superior Court Judge Corey Lee today, Friday January 30, dismissed felony child abuse charges against David Yang and Natasha Harris-Dawson, two assistant principals at Wilmer Amina Carter High School, telling Anderson and the prosecutor working with him on the case, Deputy District Attorney Morrissa Cardoza, they will need to concentrate on getting convictions on the two separate misdemeanor counts of mandated reporting failure that remain in play if they are yet convinced that Yang and Harris-Dawson should be held accountable for the atmosphere within the school in which an overly sexually aggressive male student forced himself on younger students.
Indications are that the matter could go to trial as early as next month. Given the prosecutor’s office’s effort to ratchet misdemeanor Penal Code § 1166-M failure by a mandated reporter to report child abuse or neglect charges against Yang and Harris-Dawson into felony Penal Code § C273A(A)-F willfully causing or permitting any child to suffer charges, a question stands as to whether Judge Lee is prepared to allow the defense to explore why the Rialto Police Department did not spread its investigative web wide enough to look at the activity of higher-ups in the school district and why the district attorney’s office did not include a case against Wilmer Amina Carter High Principal Robin McMillon. Some in the support network around Yang and Harris-Dawson, including others who are subject to the same mandated reporter requirement that the duo are alleged to have violated, believe that if defense attorneys take the somewhat uncommon but permissible step of calling Anderson to the witness stand and question him about his office’s decision not to charge McMillon, he will enunciate, and in essence embrace, the theory of Yang and Harris-Dawson’s innocence.
David Shenhan Yang and Natasha Harris-Dawson on February 23 were each hit with three criminal charges, those being a single felony Penal Code § 273 (A) filing, stemming from an incident occurring November 5, 2021; a misdemeanor Penal Code § 11166 filing, stemming from what was apparently the same incident; and another misdemeanor Penal Code § 11166 filing, stemming from an incident occurring on September 1, 2021. They were booked into and held at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga, originally in lieu of $150,000 bail, but released from custody the following day on their own recognizance.
Yang was originally and is still represented by attorney Joshua Peter Visco.
Harris-Dawson was initially represented by attorney Gregory Christopher Gardner, who has now been joined by Michael Scafiddi in constructing a defense for his client.
Within two months of their arrests, both Yang and Harris-Dawson were provided with status tantamount to cite releases, meaning their continuing freedom would not be conditional upon the posting of a bond, a rare concession by authorities pursuing felony charges against defendants.
Shortly after the matter became public there were reports that a desperate effort was made by the Rialto Police Department, Rialto Police Chief Mark Kling and elements within the Rialto Unified School District to contain what at one point threatened to be a scandal that would consume some of the Rialto community’s most reputable, respected and highly thought-of personages, including McMillon.
Yang and Harris-Dawson were twice arraigned and bound over for trial as the prosecution, perhaps sensing it had bitten off more than it could chew with the felony filing, sought to save face by recontexting and reformulating its hastily drawn case against the two educators, while laboring to keep the felony charge against each intact.
Despite initial fanfare, the police department and the prosecutor’s office has restricted information about what was turned up during the initial investigation into the matter and follow up inquiries.
Ultimately, based upon the police department’s further gumshoeing, a counselor at the school, Lindsay Morton, was formally charged by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office on March 7, 2022 with misdemeanor failure of a mandated reporter to report child abuse or neglect, Penal Code § 11166, stemming from an event which the district attorney’s office alleges occurred on November 1, 2021. Morton was arraigned before Judge Ingrid Uhler on April 25, 2022.
The district attorney’s office, based upon what was brought to it by the police department, has capped the number of school district employees and official defendants at three. This is despite remonstrations lodged internally to the effect that if the same standard that was employed against Yang, Harris-Dawson and Morton were applied to others, McMillon, Superintendent Dr. Cuauhtémoc Avila and current board members Stephanie Lewis, Nancy O’Kelley, Joseph Martinez, Edgar Montes and former Board Member Dina Walker, extending even, perhaps, to Julian Hunter, the district’s student board member, would be susceptible to similar criminal charges.
The board had met in closed session, with Board Member Walker declining to participate, to discuss the matter at its February 23, 2022 meeting. The record shows that during that closed session the board engaged in the review of a liability claim, expulsion of a student, employee discipline, release, dismissal and reassignment. Involving the district’s legal counsel in that discussion dressed the matter in the patina of attorney-client privilege, providing the board members and Avila with the grounds for avoiding having to make any response to questions pertaining to the matter.
Reportedly, the board was informed about rumors that had been making the rounds at the high school for over a month at that point, which were that a student had been either raped or sexually assaulted or otherwise subjected to sexual harassment by another student. The board during the course of the closed session reportedly settled upon a strategy of accepting that at least one district employee would need to function in the role of a scapegoat by being criminally charged, while the district made a public show of simultaneously cooperating with the ongoing investigation and, to divert attention from anyone else in the district, lionize one district employee on the hope that a narrative in which she is represented as heroically wading into the situation to assist a student would satisfy the public curiosity as to what had occurred, hopefully stemming further examination of the action, or lack thereof, of a host of those involved in minimizing the sexual abuse of children in the community.
On Wednesday, February 23, 2021, Yang and Harris-Dawson, both of whom were up to that point vice principals at Wilmer Amina Carter High School, were arrested and taken into custody by Rialto Police and booked into West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga on a single felony count each of child abuse under conditions likely to cause great bodily injury or death, and two misdemeanor counts each of failure to report child abuse or neglect.
What was put out at that time was that both had temporized for nearly five months before reporting that a student they oversaw as educational administrators had raped a student in September, allegedly off campus, and then held off for three months before informing authorities about either the same or another student sexually assaulting another student in November.
There were indications that a wider number of both high school and school district officials as well as members of the police department had the circumstance relating to at least one of the student offenders brought to their attention in the fall of 2021.
As of February 15, 2021, the 17-year-old who engaged in the alleged sexual assault in November 2021 and another in January 2022 had been contacted by the police but not arrested. He was, by February 16, 2022 or shortly thereafter, instead given a citation and released to what the police department indicated were his parents.
School district employees fall within the category of professionals such as social workers, physicians, teachers, educators or counselors who come into contact with what are termed “vulnerable elements of the population,” and are accordingly under legal obligation to report to the appropriate state agency any objectively reasonable sign of child abuse or elder abuse that he or she sees or encounters.
By late January 2022, there were reports extant in Rialto about sexual predators at large among the Wilmer Amina Carter student body and that Wilmer Amina Carter High School Principal Robin McMillon was being indolent in the face of what was occurring. Specific incidents were cited, including an alleged rape in September 2021, another sexual assault in November 2021 and a similar incident in January 2022, after which the names of students involved were being freely mentioned among students at the Wilmer Amina Carter campus. Despite that, no police action was taken at that time.
One rumor or point of speculation was that there was some order of personal involvement, perhaps a guardianship arrangement, between one of the vice principals or the school principal or an individual employed in the district superintendent’s office and the alleged perpetrator. Another was that the vice principal that first heard about the sexual assault did not deem the report credible.
After a second report relating to a second victim implicating the alleged perpetrator was received two months after the first, followed by a third report, events overtook the high school and the school district when the police department assigned Lieutenant James Mills and Detective Agnes Watson to look into the matter.
On February 20, 2022, Stephanie Olvera under the pseudonym “penelope_73” with the hashtag “justice for Johanna” posted a video to TikTok which captured both the visuals and audio of Olvera confronting Carter High School Assistant Principal Johanna Cuellar. “How dare you tell me I had nothing to worry about,” Olvera can be heard saying to Cuellar. “You told me I didn’t need to leave my job. How dare you? My daughter was traumatized by the time I got home.”
Cuellar can be heard on the video asking Olvera to identify herself, to which Olvera responds, “Who am I? Well, what type of mom are you? How dare you? How dare you not call the cops yesterday for her defense?” When Cuellar says, “I will call them,” Olvera replies, “Oh, now you will. I called them already.”
During further exchange about her daughter, identified by Olvera as “Joanna,” Cuellar can be heard saying, “Let me tell you, your daughter begged me, ‘Please, don’t call…’” At that point Olvera and an unidentified man accompanying Olvera react strongly, their utterances drowning out Cuellar, who attempts to continue. “It doesn’t matter,” Olvera says. “She’s a student.” The man can be heard saying, “Your protocol is to call for her. You’re not here to be her friend. You’re here to do your job. That’s it.”
With Olvera and the unidentified man, possibly Olvera’s husband and Johanna’s father, dominating the exchange with the school official, Olvera can be heard saying, “I heard you know about this student already, and nothing’s been done.”
Accompanying the TikTok video was the blurb, “[P]lease help me share my daughter [J]ohanna[’s] story[. S]he was sexually abused by a student in Carter [H]igh[S]chool and the school failed to contact me and the police to cover up for the student because he was considered a son to the vice principal[. S]o for that reason they convince[d] my daughter to keep quiet[,] if not she would be expelled[. T]hey failed to protect my daughter and she has not been herself ever since[. P]lease help me share so we can get all the staff involved to be accountable for failing to do their job protecting our children.”
Despite the rumblings about sexual predators on the Wilmer Amina Carter campus in January, the Rialto Police Department at this point maintains it did not get wind of the sexual assaults until February 16, 2022. At that point, the department was given an explicit report that a 15-year-old girl at Carter High had been sexually assaulted by a 17-year-old student on what the department later said was “several times over the past three months. When detectives investigated the allegations they learned there were two additional female students, ages 15 and 16, who were sexually assaulted by the same suspect.”
Within a week, the department assembled a case and took action against both Harris-Dawson and Yang. The department did not include any other school or district personnel in its action plan, including McMillon and Cuellar, despite information that school staff at a level below Harris-Dawson and Yang had direct knowledge about the assaults on students and despite information to indicate that Harris-Dawson and Yang’s superior at Wilmer Amina Carter, Principal Robin McMillon, as well as their colleague Cuellar, were within the loop and subject to the same reporting requirement that they were. A month previously, Wilmer Amina Carter High School students and parents of Wilmer Amina Carter High School students had been criticizing McMillon for her tolerance of the overly-sexually aggressive students active on the high school campus.
In making the arrests of Harris-Dawson and Yang, the police department put out a statement. “As mandated reporters, both Harris-Dawson and Yang are required by California State Law to immediately alert law enforcement of child abuse or neglect,” it pronounced. The police department statement did not mention McMillon.
In the weeks and months after the arrests of Harris-Dawson and Yang, the district removed any references to McMillon as Carter High’s principal, purposefully courting a circumstance to suggest she was not affiliated with the school or no longer affiliated with the school. Cuellar was credited with being the school’s interim principal.
After Morton was brought publicly into the matter with charges being filed against her, there was a general air of alarm among mandated reporters not just within the school district, not just within Rialto and not just within San Bernardino County but throughout all of California over how knowledge/grounds for suspicion about sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable members of the population was to be defined. The wider implication of the charges lodged against Yang, Harris-Dawson and Morton were evinced in court filings by the legal representatives of KTTV, Fox News and other media outlets seeking permission to engage in video and other coverage of the court proceedings.
The circumstances of the case suggested that if convictions were obtained against Yang, Harris-Dawson and Morton, any so-called mandated reporters would be vulnerable to prosecution if it were to be demonstrated that someone with whom they had come into contact during the comportment of their professional duty had been sexually assaulted if the mandated reporters had failed to show a sensitivity to any indicator, no matter how nuanced or indirect, that a sexual assault had taken place.
That pushed open the possibility that lawyers for Yang, Harris-Dawson or Morton would explore the culpability of others at the district, including McMillon, Cuellar and even Avila and board members Lewis, O’Kelley, Martinez, Montes, Walker and Hunter, as a defense strategy.
When the police department was pressed as to why it had limited its referrals of criminal activity to Yang, Harris-Dawson and Morton, it put out a statement that it “will not comment on an ongoing sexual battery investigation involving children. Our department will continue protecting children and will not revictimize a child who reports sexual battery by commenting publicly.”
When it was asserted that others beyond Yang, Harris-Dawson and Morton had contributed to a circumstance in which the victimization of children had gone unaddressed, an exasperated department member said, “a sufficient message was delivered with the three arrests. Anything further would put the whole staff and principal at risk or even the superintendent or school board. It’s gone far enough.”
It was suggested that the police department and the district attorney’s office, unsure of the reach of the then-relatively new social media phenomenon Tic-Tok, was seeking to douse the burgeoning conflagration of controversy over the sexual abuse of students within the school district by placating Olvera. Moreover, the observation was that Anderson knew he could not get felony convictions of Yang and Harris-Dawson, but pursued them “to make a statement.”
When he was pressed on that issue precisely, Anderson tore into Harris-Dawson and Yang, saying that their failure to act destroyed “the trust that students and parents alike should have regarding the safety and protection of all the children in their care. Their failure as mandated reporters to notify law enforcement led to further victimization of two students, and the sexual assault of a third victim, which was preventable.” Pointedly, however, Anderson ignored questions as to why he was not equally critical of McMillon.
Anderson found himself in the ethically uncomforatable circumstance of relying upon the pleadings contained in a civil lawsuit, CIVSB2210212 J.M. -v- Rialto Unified School District et al filed by attorneys Michael Alder and Samantha Hernandez-Ortega on behalf of Stephanie Olvera’s daughter, Johanna, against the district, to justify his action.
According to that lawsuit, the day after she had been verbally and sexually assaulted by the 17-year-old male student on campus in November 2021, Johanna told Yang what had occurred. After having Johanna make a statement in writing, Yang had her wait outside his office, according to the lawsuit, while he conferred with Harris-Dawson, after which the two assistant principals sought to have her desist in the complaint.
In particular, according to Alder and Hernandez-Ortega, Harris-Dawson improperly suggested that Johanna was responsible for provoking the young man’s action. In Yang’s office, Yang and Harris-Dawson stated or implied that Johanna making an issue of what had occurred was leading to the 17-year-old being threatened and harassed by other students, who were characterizing him as a sexual pervert, according to the suit.
Present in Yang’s office, according to the lawsuit, was a school district/Carter High security guard. The guard and Yang sought to dissuade Johanna from pressing the matter, while implying or stating she could be suspended from school or expelled if she persisted, according to Alder and Hernandez-Ortega.
With the matter yet up in the air, Harris-Dawson later brought Johanna into her office and accused Johanna of dressing provocatively and thus encouraging the assault and not being forceful enough in rebuffing the 17-year-old’s sexual advances, according to the lawsuit.
No action was taken by either Yang, Harris-Dawson or the security guard until February, at which point Johanna, brought to tears by again being subjected to the sexual harassment, told a teacher about the 17-year old’s actions when the teacher asked why she was crying, the suit states. The teacher informed Cuellar, who contacted Stephanie Olvera. On February 16, Olvera informed the Rialto Police Department about the abuse her daughter was experiencing at the hands of the 17-year-old, according to the lawsuit.
According to the Rialto Unified School District, “The safety and well-being of students is our number one priority.”
The district attorney’s office must adhere to a standard in criminal court of proving the charges against Yang, Harris-Dawson and Morton to a moral certainty or beyond any reasonable doubt, while Alder and Hernandez-Ortega, to prevail for their client need to show that a preponderance of the evidence favors their case. Prosecutors need get a unanimous guilty verdict to convict. Alder and Hernandez-Ortega can win with a majority verdict.
As early as last May, members of Anderson’s office were questioning whether he would be able to obtain convictions against Yang and Harris-Dawson on felony charges wherein the underlying crime was a misdemeanor committed by a separate party.
The prosecution’s narrative bogged down when substantive discrepancies with regard to the first of the alleged assaults involving the 17-year-old emerged during the preliminary hearing for Yang and Harris-Dawson. Unresolved by investigators was when that assault, initially said to have happened in September 2021 but later referred to as happening in October and then in November, occurred. More difficult still was where that assault occurred, as it could not be established that at least one of the assaults had occurred on campus.
One of the assaults perpetrated by the 17-year-old against Johanna was said to have occurred in November of 2021, consisting of the boy “grabbing her ass” and making sexually-tinged comments to her.
Timelines with regard to the complaint made by Johanna and the action taken, or as put by the prosecutors not taken, by Yang and Harris-Dawson proved problematic for the prosecution as the preliminary hearing on the matter held in August 2022 moved into its middle stages. A presumption was that both knew of the full range of the 17-year-old’s behavior no later than November and Yang and Harris-Dawson had been told by one of the victims that that she had been physically assaulted by the young man. Detective Watson, however, stated that the victim informed her that she had not told any adults about what had occurred until she related it to Watson.
Visco, Gardner and Scafiddi were also able to provide Judge Lee with credible evidence that Yang and Harris-Dawson sought to corroborate the accusations against the 17-year-old but were thwarted in that effort when other students said to be witnesses refused to make either verbal or written statements to confirm those accusations.
Prosecutors maintained that Yang and Harris-Dawson could not use their inability to prove on their own all of the details with regard to the assaults as a defense of their action/inaction, as they had been told of two and possibly more sexual assaults perpetrated by the 17-year-old on younger females at the high school and that they did not, as required, inform either the police department or child protective services. Nor did Yang and Harris-Dawson, according to the prosecution, contact the victims’ parents or the 17-year-old’s parents.
Today, Judge Lee entered a finding under the rubric of Penal Code Section 995 granting a dismissal of the Penal Code § 273 (A) charges, setting them aside against both Yang and Harris-Dawson on the grounds that the information supplied in the filing to allege a felony was improperly or inadequately sustained by the evidence and other pleadings.
Visco, Gardner and Scafiddi will now concentrate on establishing their clients were not negligent in addressing the implications in the 17-year-old’s actions toward any of the three female Carter High School students, as must be established for prosecutors to prevail in proving those charges.