TEA recommends Santa Rosa ISD accreditation be lowered

A preliminary report detailing an investigation into the Santa Rosa Independent School District by the Texas Education Agency found that the SRISD Board of Trustees failed to report allegations of child abuse, failed to fingerprint all employees, and recommends that the district’s accreditation be lowered.

TEA’s Special Investigations Unit initiated its on-site investigation into the SRISD Board on March 3, 2019, according to the document.

The report ultimately recommends that the state appoint a Board of Managers that will work with SRISD to “identify issues that led to the non-compliance and report to the agency on the development of a corrective plan to address the issue,” wrote TEA.

The inquiry provides insight into allegations raised in a federal Title IX lawsuit filed in January against the district and former officials, as well as former coach and criminal justice teacher Josue Cepeda and his colleague Isaac Flores.

SRISD was contacted for comment on the allegations listed in the TEA report. The district’s legal counsel stated that as the preliminary report is considered to be an audit working paper, Superintendent Angela Gonzalez has been instructed not to comment until the matter is finalized with TEA.

At the state level, Cepeda and Flores face multiple criminal charges related to what prosecutors allege were sexual relationships with two minor female students beginning in 2018.

According to the preliminary report from TEA, an individual identified as “Student A” informed SRHS teacher Karina Saldivar of an alleged relationship between Cepeda and “Student B” in the Spring of 2018, prompting Saldivar to inform the school principal, Rebecca Corpus, who then informed former superintendent Heriberto Villarreal.

Investigators wrote that in May 2018, Villarreal conducted an internal investigation and “found that there was no evidence of wrongdoing” by Cepeda, informed the board of an alleged relationship, and no action was taken.

However, nearly nine months later, in February 2019, Interim Superintendent Yolanda Chapa informed Cepeda that the Santa Rosa Police Department had received a complaint about him for an alleged improper relationship between a student and educator, the report stated.

The case was referred to the Texas Rangers and Chapa placed Cepeda on paid administrative leave, investigators wrote.

A detailed analysis alleged that SRISD failed to provide TEA with evidence that educators aware of an alleged relationship filed any reports with Child Protective Services and/or law enforcement.

Investigators also concluded that the district was unable to provide TEA investigators with copies of the Notice to Parents informing Student B’s parents of the alleged relationship with Cepeda.

In January 2020, the district self-reported that it had failed to fingerprint all employees and had completed a criminal background check.

According to the report, the three employees who had not been fingerprinted had clean records, but several employees came back with criminal charges like DWI and theft.

Former superintendent Villarreal signed, notarized, and submitted four annual fingerprinting certifications and statements of compliance to the agency beginning in 2015, the report documented.

TEA Educator Investigations Division completed a compliance review in 2019, prompted by Gonzalez, and found that SRISD had been out of compliance with State law since 2009, the report concluded.

Further allegations detailed by investigators included a culture of hazing and sexual harassment within the district’s athletic program.

Concerns stemmed from an assault that occurred in the boy’s locker room at Jo Nelson Middle School in which a student was beaten, according to the investigators. According to the report, an investigation in August 2017 by Chief of Police Enrique Betancourt revealed that such incidents were “a regular occurrence.”

An incident in February 2020 in which a student pulled down the pants and underwear of two or more students, exposing their genitals during a JV basketball practice, resulted in an investigation by Rosalinda Vargas which concluded that the hazing was systemic, according to investigators.

Athletic Director Juan Cipriano was, according to the TEA report, aware of the hazing through Coach Gonzalez. Investigators found that both failed to address the “pants-ing”, didn’t reach out to victims to discuss the situation, and failed to report the incident to the principal or superintendent.

On June 2 of this year, SRISD held a proposed non-renewal hearing of Cirpriano’s contract. Board President Santos Castaneda stated during deliberation that Cipriano testified he was “completely okay with kids pulling pants down,” wrote TEA.

Castaneda moved to accept the non-renewal recommendation, but trustees Cynthia Saldivar, Juan Manuel Perez, Raul Garza, and Danny Theys voted against the non-renewal and his contract was extended.

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com