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School district to probe sexual-abuse allegations at Strawberry Point Elementary

Updated: May 30

The Mill Valley School District plans to launch its own investigation into sexual-abuse allegations against a Strawberry Point Elementary School teacher who was found dead earlier this month.

 

Darren Smith was arrested April 30 after a monthlong investigation by the Marin County Sheriff’s Office and subsequently charged with molesting two children at the school, located on East Strawberry Drive.



Smith posted $200,000 in bail and was released from Marin County Jail within hours of his arrest. The next day, May 1, authorities responded to a 911 call reporting a surfer had possibly been washed out to sea at Drakes Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. After a search, a man’s body was found floating in the ocean about 2½ miles from the beach parking area; he was later identified as Smith.

 

The county coroner’s office is investigating the cause of death. The Sheriff’s Office has paused its criminal investigation pending those results but expects to formally close the case once it receives the coroner’s report, Detective Sgt. Hugh Baker said at a district-hosted parent forum earlier this month.

 

The district says it plans to hire Walnut Creek-based education and public-agency law firm Lozano Smith Attorneys to conduct its investigation, which will involve examining the policies and procedures in place at the school, where authorities allege the abuse took place during school hours in January. Smith was a K-5 music teacher and a fifth-grade band teacher in the Mill Valley district, where he had worked since 2013. He had been on administrative leave since March 28, when officials at Strawberry Point first contacted law enforcement about the allegations.

 

The district’s legal counsel, Jaspreet Lochab-Dogra, will help organize the investigation, said Mill Valley School District communication specialist Cyd Amaral.

 

Amaral did not provide a timeline for the probe, other than to say it would be starting “soon.” She said the cost of the investigation was unknown.

 

The firm’s investigation will involve interviewing witnesses and reviewing evidence, Amaral said, adding that updates would be provided to the district community by Superintendent Elizabeth Kaufman as deemed appropriate.

 

Sheriff’s spokesperson Sgt. Adam Schermerhorn said he did not did know of any other victims who have come forward against Smith, though the department’s call logs show a Mill Valley Middle School counselor on May 1 reported a student told them she was “hugged inappropriately” by Smith “at her bottom area” approximately four years earlier.

 

Authorities said during the May 6 meeting that the Sheriff’s Office will continue to take reports if additional victims come forward.

 

“Any victim that wants to be heard is going to be heard,” said Sgt. Laura Dargo, who works in the youth investigation unit with Baker.

 

Any underage victims who come forward would be interviewed by psychologists at the Jeannette Prandi Children’s Center who specialize in sexual-abuse cases, Baker said.

 

He called the outcome of the case “both a blessing and a curse,” noting taking allegations through the court process can be difficult for victims and cause additional trauma.

 

However, he said, “it’s a curse because closure may be difficult to find … for them and may be difficult to find for the community.”

 

Kaufman said she is reaching out to Tamalpais High School, for which the Mill Valley district serves as a feeder district, and the community at large to ensure anyone who wants to come forward has the opportunity to do so.

 

Kaufman said any potential changes to district policies would come after reviewing the results of the investigation. She noted the district already has state and federally required staff trainings aimed to protect students from abuse and harassment, including mandatory-reporter training.

 

“None of those prevented this, so I think it’s a much deeper look to what can we do differently in terms of our culture,” she said.

 

She said in some cases rules intended to ensure student safety can also create vulnerable environments. For example, she said, safety tactics intended to protect schools from active shooters may create an environment where abuse could happen.

 

“You need to be able to close your windows and hide your kids,” she said. “In such situations, other things can happen.”

 

In the meantime, she said, the district has listed some resources on its website to help parents talk to their children about personal boundaries, respect and consent, Kaufman said. She noted the district has also ordered 20 sets of educational books recommended by the Jeannette Prandi Children’s Center that will be available through a parent lending library. The also district continues to partner with Care Solace, which connects students, staff and their families with therapists.

 

Reach Belvedere, Strawberry and public-safety reporter Naomi Friedland at 415-944-4627.



 

 

 

 

 

 

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