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New sex assault claim surfaces at Columbia Elementary

The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a new claim that a Columbia Elementary School tutor sexually assaulted a student on campus in October 2010, a few months before a second sexual-misconduct case involving an after-school aide came to light.

Columbia Elementary School Principal Ed Pelfrey told the Sheriff’s Office this week that the student reported having been “touched” by a volunteer tutor in October 2010, according to Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Sgt. A.J. Ford.

Ford declined to elaborate further on the nature of the alleged assault, but a sheriff’s log entry for Monday characterized the offense as “lewd acts with a child.” 

The student had not come forward before. Yet the same suspect allegedly assaulted two other students on campus the same month in 2010, resulting in reports by Pelfrey and a sheriff’s investigation at that time. 

No arrest was made in 2010, and the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office did not file charges. Columbia Elementary School immediately told the volunteer not to return, according to Ford. 

The alleged incidents took place on campus during the school day and not in the after-school program. The suspect was an elderly man and retired teacher who has since died, Ford said.

The Sheriff’s Office declined to release his name because the investigation is ongoing. It also withheld the ages, genders and grade levels of the three students who reported being assaulted.

During the new investigation, which began Monday, officers will check whether the suspect had a prior criminal history, Ford said. 

Tuolumne County District Attorney Mike Knowles said Tuesday that he would need a suspect’s name to research why charges hadn’t been filed in the 2010 case. 

This was the second allegation of misconduct in as many years.

In the spring of 2011, Brennan Pendley, an after-school program aide and son of Columbia Union School District Superintendent John Pendley, was arrested on sex charges related to a female student. Brennan Pendley later pleaded guilty to having sex with the eighth-grade girl in a classroom in spring 2010. He was 23 at the time. 

Ford did not go into further detail about the nature of the alleged sexual assault reported Monday. 

“The reason the Sheriff’s Office is still investigating the case is, first and foremost, we’re always interested in getting the entire story,” he said. 

“Another reason we would continue the investigation is that the victim or victims, even if the suspect is deceased, could still be eligible for benefits along the lines of counseling and whatever help they might need,” he said.

Pelfrey declined to comment and said he was doing so out of concern for the student who made the latest report. 

John Pendley, who was away from campus Tuesday, did not immediately return phone and email messages.

Columbia Elementary Board of Trustees President Laura Phelan did not return a phone message. 

Columbia Elementary Trustee Jo Rodefer, elected in November 2012 after calling for John Pendley’s resignation, declined to comment Tuesday. 

“I’m not going to make any comment on any kind of police investigation,” Rodefer said after being asked whether she knew about the situation. 

Jeff Tolhurst, a Columbia College professor and former Columbia Elementary trustee whose five-year term ended in November 2012, said he had no knowledge of the sheriff’s investigation in 2010.  

“I’d like to hear more information,” Tolhurst said. “I don’t remember any sexual assault investigation in 2010 or being told of any investigation. That’s pretty shocking.”   

It was unclear Tuesday whether Columbia Union School District had performed a background check on the volunteer tutor or whether it did its own investigation after the 2010 allegations. 

Also unavailable were further details about where the suspect had previously taught, when he had retired and exactly what work he had been doing at Columbia Elementary. 

Ford said the school district was fully cooperating with the investigation. 

“We don’t have any information at this time to believe that the district or anyone there did anything wrong or negligent by any means,” he said. 

He said he was not aware of any further claims of sexual assault involving the Columbia Elementary campus. 

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