By MARISELA SANTANA, Staff Writer
LYNWOOD — About 40 people gathered Monday night for a candlelight vigil in front of the Lynwood Unified School District’s headquarters hoping to put a halt to child abuse, neglect and violence at schools sites.
While the vigil was specifically organized to show victims of any type of distress that they have parental and community support, the event was not organized to publicize Tuesday’s school board election or Tuesday’s court appearance by former Firebaugh High School Principal Jonas Silverio.
Silverio was supposed to be arraigned Tuesday at Compton Superior Court, but that was continued to Nov. 23.
Carrying candles and placards with messages such as “Save Child,” “Stop the Abuse” and “We Support You For Speaking Out,” parents who organized the vigil say their plans simply fell on the eve of both events by coincidence.
One of the organizers, Jackie Espinoza, said the gathering originally began with the intention of showing victims who have testified against Silverio — currently charged with 18 counts of committing lewd acts on children — some community support.
“This is our way of showing them that we are proud of them for speaking up,” Espinoza said. “We know that doing so must have been very difficult. We don’t know any of these girls, and we’re not saying that [Silverio is] guilty, we just wanted to show these girls that we are behind them, and that are prayers are with them.”
Showing the victims identified in the case their support first came up after Silverio’s Oct. 20 preliminary hearing, Espinoza said.
“We heard that a lot of people attended that hearing in support of Silverio,” she said. “I lost a brother to violence and it feels awful to be sitting in a courtroom thinking that you might be alone. We’re here to tell [these victims] that they’re not alone. We want them to know that we’re here for them.”
On Oct. 20, the judge and the lawyers heard the testimony of four alleged victims — two of whom are former Firebaugh High School students — and an additional witness.
Over the last few weeks, however, the gathering took on a new meaning, as parents from different schools approached organizers of this event about other types of abuse they’ve witnessed or experienced throughout the school district.
Blanca Mendoza, who took part in the vigil with her young son, said she doesn’t know any of the victims in the Silverio case, but she said she has been a witness to other types of abuse at the school site level — abuse, she said, that on many occasions has gone on without being addressed.
“I’ve seen it firsthand, how adults at the school sites mistreat some of our children,” she said. “I know changes can’t happen overnight, but we need things to change. The system needs to change. Our children are in school to learn, not to be physically mistreated by the adults at their schools.”
Another parent, Rabbii Parrot, said that she believes her daughter was sexually harassed by a Lynwood school teacher in June. “And I’m very upset about the matter, and I’m frustrated, because there seems to be a lack of trying to resolve the matter, there’s a lack of communication in this district,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know what’s going to happen to this teacher. … I’m just learning that when things like this happen, a lot of these teachers are just moved from one school to another. They’re not held accountable, so where is the justice with that? That’s very appalling to me.”
Through the vigil, Parrot said parents are hoping to see some change at the district level on how it handles such cases.
“We need these allegations to be followed through, we need complete background checks conducted on people the district hires, and we need investigations to be thorough and complete,” she said. “Because it seems we are at a point where that isn’t happening.”
Carrying a placard that read “We Support You For Speaking Out,” parent Arturo Ramos said it is important to reach out to victims of abuse, to show them that they are not alone.
“It’s very hard for any victim to speak up,” he said. “It’s very easy for them to just give up, but then the people who commit these crimes get away without justice being served. That’s why we want [these victims] to know that we support them.”
The support goes out to all victims, said Ramos, who added that recently more and more cases of teacher on student mistreatment are popping up.
“Our students need change now,” Ramos said. “The system needs to change, because right now, administrators are being allowed to cover up for a lot of these wrongdoings … and honestly, enough is enough. We are tired of people not being held accountable for their actions and just getting slapped on the wrist.”
Espinoza reminded parents that it is important to “tell our children that they need to speak up” when something happens to them.
“If they speak up, then maybe there are others,” Espinoza said. “When you speak out, you can be a role model to others, you can help those who think they’re alone, but most of all you can put a stop to the abuse by speaking out.”
School board member Rachel Chavez also participated in the vigil. She said the district is taking every concern seriously and is taking the time to investigate each incident thoroughly. “At times, it takes a while to get to the bottom of these allegations for different reasons, but they are getting addressed,” Chavez said. “As board members, we hear parents, we hear their concerns. Unfortunately, the wheels of justice a lot of times turn slowly.”
Chavez also said she wasn’t participating in the event to place guilt on any one person or to point any fingers. She wanted to participate because she believes in the saying “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child.”
“Parents have come to me with their concerns, and they personally know that I do the best that I can to help them,” she said. “[This] is a wonderful idea, to show our students that whatever they face, that they’re not alone and that they have a community that supports them.”