City of Falls Church Mayor David Tarter began Monday night’s meeting of the Falls Church City Council by reading a forceful statement in wake of sexual abuse charges against Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School teacher Jose Daniel Estrada, arrested last week and charged with molesting two female students.
The charges have been compounded by unconfirmed reports by a regional media outlet that Estrada had been removed from other teaching positions and merely “counseled” to avoid situations of being alone with his students by the Henderson Middle School principal in the last year. The News-Press received similar unconfirmed reports.
In a press release last Friday, Manassas Park Police said they are currently conducting an investigation jointly with Child Protection Services on allegations that may have occurred between September 2014 and April 2015 while Estrada was a teacher at Manassas Park Middle School.
The Falls Church City School System (FCCPS), in a press release this week, stated that it followed its standard protocols in 2015 when it hired Estrada. The procedures included fingerprinting and backgrounds checks with the FBI, the Virginia State Police, Child Protective Services that included panel interviews and reference checks.
The schools’ statement said that Estrada was hired on July 1, 2015 and that Estrada’s immediate past supervisor at a Manassas Park middle school had been interviewed prior to the hire. “That supervisor was asked specifically about Estrada’s interactions with students and staff members. FCCPS received no information indicating that there had been problems or issues, and when asked if Estrada was someone who would be rehired, the answer was yes,” the FCCPS statement said.
In his statement Monday, Mayor Tarter said, “As a father of three children, I am deeply distressed to think that children in our community are ever harmed by trusted adults. Our community’s children and their families continue to be our primary focus. Falls Church is a small and in some ways a sheltered community, but no community can afford to assume it is free of the scourge of sexual abuse. We must be constantly vigilant, educate ourselves and our children, and not be afraid to discuss this important issue.”
He continued, “Our silence is not the answer to child sexual abuse…We must be willing to thoroughly examine and re-examine our practices and procedures to ensure that we always do the best by our most vulnerable citizens. The City government is in the process of doing that now. We already have safeguards in place in connection with our youth programs…We are committed to re-evaluating and strengthening these programs where opportunities for improvement are identified, which may include enhancing staff training and community outreach…We will continue to do all we can to protect our children. We owe them nothing less.”
Tarter said that as the matter of the Estrada charges “will be handled by the courts and the (Falls Church City Public) School Board, I cannot comment on it at this time.”
Interim School Superintendent Dr. Robert Schiller told the News-Press Wednesday that a “firewall now exists” between the schools and those continuing to investigate this case. He said in his long career he’s faced other situations like this, and affirmed that all the necessary procedures had been followed.
This included the action by the Schools to contact the Falls Church Police and Child Protective Services (CPS) on Jan. 17, in accordance with State law, upon receiving a report alleging that there was inappropriate conduct by a teacher. Estrada was immediately removed from the classroom and placed on paid leave, as the law also requires. “The action enabled the FCCPS to ensure the safety of its students while also reserving judgment on the employee,” the FCCPS statement said.
Schiller said Estrada had been hired on a one year at a time basis with annual non-continuing contracts, and that a decision had been taken not to renew his contract just prior to his arrest. While, in accordance with state law, Estrada’s pay was placed in an escrow account pending the outcome of his case, he will be paid only through this June 30. The School Board followed Schiller’s recommendation and voted last week not to renew his contract.
Even prior to his arrest, Schiller told the News-Press, the School Board determined that “he was not the kind of person who rose to the level of our expectations.”
The FCCPS statement added, “As the police and CPS investigation continues, we must be alert to the possibility of additional potential victims. It is extremely important that individuals feel comfortable and supported in coming forward if they have additional information or concerns,” adding, “Our teachers and staff, the mentors and role models for our students, have a tremendous impact on student safety and security.”
Schiller told the News-Press that he’d retained special counsel to advise him to ensure the schools were doing everything properly.