School teacher sentenced to 14 years for sexual abuse

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Thomas Arthur Beltran

Thomas Arthur Beltran pleaded guilty in court last week to sexually abusing students at Lincoln Middle School.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Thomas Arthur Beltran, the Lincoln Middle School teacher who was arrested last May on 14 felony counts of sexually abusing students at the school, has pleaded guilty to 10 counts of continued sexual abuse and other counts involving nine female students and was sentenced to 14 years in state prison.

Beltran also admitted to abusing two other victims, but was not charged in those cases due to the statute of limitations.

Robin Sax, the deputy district attorney who brought the prosecution charges against Beltran, said the plea deal was reached just as a preliminary hearing in the case was set to begin.

“There was a lot of talking back and forth, and a lot of work to get to this point,” Sax said. “I think he was in denial for awhile, even though I said in his original bail motion that we had evidence on him on tape.”

The local community was shocked when Beltran, who taught English as a second language to seventh graders at Lincoln Middle School for 20 years, was arrested last May, following a complaint from a 12-year-old student to her parents. Shock turned to outrage when school parents discovered that Beltran had been investigated in 2006 by the Santa Monica Police Department for another incident that had been reported to the school principal.

Current administrators, however, could find no record of the complaint and prosecutors declined to press charges at that time, citing lack of evidence.

“The community rallied around Beltran back in 2006,” Sax said. “They all said, ‘He couldn’t possibly do this.’ I guess everyone was in denial.”

Many Lincoln Middle School parents were dumbfounded at the scope and number of Beltran’s victims. Michael Chwe, a parent member of the ad hoc committee that has been meeting with school board representatives regarding the abuse, said, “What is especially horrific about this case is how many Lincoln students were victimized and for how long. The obvious question is why the SMMUSD didn’t stop Mr. Beltran earlier.”

Chwe said he couldn’t fathom why school administrators could never find the 2006 complaint against Beltran.

“To this day, no SMMUSD official has given a coherent explanation of why they had no knowledge or record of this complaint,” he said.

SMMUSD board member Oscar de la Torre said the district alerted the police in 2006 when that incident was reported, but he could only speculate why the investigation didn’t lead to legal action.

“I think one angle we must look at is that Beltran taught ESL students,” de la Torre said. “These are some of our most vulnerable students. Maybe there is a cultural issue. Maybe some of these students have undocumented parents and they were afraid to say anything to police. These are all barriers that we must examine.”

Since Beltran’s arrest last May, the district has implemented a number of policies to keep children safer. Protocols on reporting any allegation have been revised so that they are centrally recorded with the superintendent’s office. Screening of district volunteers with any contact with children has been tightened with background and fingerprint checks mandatory. And the district has hired a professional consultant, Pattie Fitzgerald, to conduct workshops with students and parents to alert them to predatory behavior and how to avoid it.

“No school district is immune to predators,” de la Torre said. “Predators are smart. But if you look at all the statistics and see how predators operate, kids are generally safer at school even than at home. Nonetheless, this case is obviously a tragedy for all parties involved.”

Chwe had a more blunt assessment. “That Mr. Beltran could sexually abuse students for so long with impunity is evidence of a systemic failure in the SMMUSD,” he said. “It was a failure of policy, a failure of leadership and a failure to simply listen to the children.”

The fact that Beltran could apparently abuse students for as long as 10 years before getting caught is not that unusual, according to many studies on sexual abuse.

Dr. Joel P. Leifer, a forensic psychologist for the state prison system, has spent years evaluating sexually violent predators and said Beltran’s case is uncomfortably common.

“They get away with it because no one talks,” Leifer said. “He has a good line. The parents like him and he makes the victims feel like it’s their responsibility, so there’s real shame involved. The best thing schools can do to protect their students and their own reputation is to make sure students and parents are educated as to what is acceptable behavior.”

Sax said that Beltran must serve at least 85 percent of his sentence before consideration for parole and that he must pass a forensic examination to see if he qualifies as a sexually violent predator, which would keep him incarcerated further. When he is released, he must register as a sex offender.