A San Bernardino Superior Court judge on Friday, Jan. 20, dismissed felony child abuse charges against two assistant principals at Wilmer Amina Carter High School in Rialto accused of failing to report allegations of sexual assault against three students.
Attorneys representing David Shenhan Yang, 39, and Natasha Harris-Dawson, 38, said they are ready to go to trial over the remaining misdemeanor charges against them — two counts each of failure of a mandated reporter to report child abuse or neglect.
It is the first criminal case in the history of San Bernardino County in which school administrators have been criminally charged for violations of California’s mandated reporter law, which requires school employees, health care workers, the clergy and other professionals to report abuse or neglect of minors to law enforcement or child protective services.
‘Correct legal decision’
Yang and Harris-Dawson’s attorneys believe their clients will be fully vindicated.
“We are very happy that the judge made the correct legal decision today,” said Yang’s attorney, Joshua P. Visco, in an email Friday. “We do still intend on fully clearing Mr. Yang’s name at trial on the remaining misdemeanor charges.”
A third defendant in the case, Lindsay Morton, a counselor at Carter High School since 2018, also has been charged with one misdemeanor count of violating the mandated reporter law. She will next appear in court on Jan. 27 for a pretrial hearing, court records show.
Judge Corey Lee on Friday considered motions to dismiss all charges filed by Visco and Harris-Dawson’s attorneys, Chris Gardner and Michael Scafiddi. She concluded that prosecutors failed to provide evidence supporting either felony or misdemeanor child abuse charges against both defendants, Gardner said in a telephone interview.
“She found that the evidence … did not meet the standard of criminal negligence that is required for child abuse,” Gardner said.
“We welcome the prosecutor to reevaluate this and recognize that basically the clients have suffered enough. These people should be back at work,” Gardner said. “We hope that prosecutors consider dismissing this; otherwise, we’re going to trial. Ms. Harris is eager to clear her name further by having her jury trial as soon as possible to refute the other claims, which she has adamantly denied throughout this entire process.”
A trial readiness hearing is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 27, in Rancho Cucamonga, with trial likely starting the following week, Gardner said.
The boy at the center of the case was accused of groping the alleged victims, trying to kiss them and making sexually suggestive comments.
District attorney spokesperson Jacquelyn Rodriguez said that although the felony child abuse charges were dismissed, “It does not dismiss the trauma and impact on the victims and their families.”
“The San Bernardino County district attorney’s office will proceed with the remaining misdemeanor charges of failure to report against each defendant, charges which we believe we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said.
School district responds
Rialto Unified School District spokesperson Syeda Jafri on Friday said the district has cooperated with authorities and respects the court’s decisions, but could not comment further on the case. Nor could the district comment on its internal administrative investigation.
“The district does not have the privilege to further discuss pending confidential, personnel matters in an open media forum,” Jafri said.
In their motions to dismiss, defense attorneys maintained that, among other things, what some of the victims told Yang and Harris in the fall of 2021 was not consistent with what they told Rialto police Detective Agnes Watson in February 2022, when police launched the criminal investigation after the mother of one of the victim’s filed a complaint after becoming aware of the situation.
Yang and Harris-Dawson attempted to follow up on the complaints by two of the victims, but could not get other students to cooperate and provide written statements.
The third victim came forward after police began investigating, and told Watson in February 2022 the alleged perpetrator had “smacked her butt” a few weeks prior, but she told Watson she had not reported it to anyone except her, Gardner and Scafiddi said in their motion.
During Yang and Harris-Dawson’s preliminary hearing in August 2022, Gardner and Scafiddi said there was no direct testimony regarding what another victim specifically told Harris, who never told Watson she was aware of any sexual assault on one of the victims, who would not provide her a written statement. Harris told Watson she followed up with the girl’s alleged perpetrator, but he denied the allegations.
And another victim told Watson she met the boy who allegedly sexually assaulted her in October 2021, and the alleged sexual assault occurred late that month. However, in a written statement she gave to Yang and Harris-Dawson, she said the sexual assault occurred on Sept. 1, 2021, nearly two months prior, according to Gardner’s and Scafiddi’s motion.
“Detective Watson admitted that what Jane Doe 1 put in the written statement and what she told Detective Watson were inconsistent, and that she failed to inquire regarding the 8-week discrepancy,” according to the motion. “Detective Watson conceded that she did not actually know when the incident happened; that it was unclear if it occurred in September, October, or November.”
In a motion opposing the defense attorneys’ motions, county prosecutors argued that Yang and Harris-Dawson, despite having reports from at least two students reporting sexual assault by the same student, failed to not only call police or child protective services, but also the alleged victims’ parents and the alleged perpetrator’s parents.
If a call had been made to the boy’s parents after the first incident was reported, they could have intervened with their son to prevent the sexual assaults involving the second and third victims, the motion says.
Instead, Yang and Harris-Dawson did nothing, allowing the boy to remain on campus to continue harassing at least one of the other victims, who after a rattling encounter with the boy in her classroom broke down in tears and was escorted to the office, where she informed another assistant principal of what happened.
That assistant principal did call the girl’s mother and told her what was going on, and the mother then called police, triggering the criminal investigation.
“It simply defies logic that a reasonable person, in this case an assistant principal, who was told any of the things that both victims reported to defendants would have completely dismissed the obvious threat the minor posed to not only his victims, but all of his potential victims as well,” said District Attorney Jason Anderson and prosecutor Morrissa Cardoza, who filed the motion jointly.
Rialto Police Chief Mark Kling declined to comment.