An Ohlone Elementary School teacher has been placed on unpaid compulsory leave after the district discovered he is facing charges of sexual abuse of a former Palo Alto Unified student from more than a decade ago, Superintendent Max McGee confirmed Thursday evening.
Mike Airo of San Mateo, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Ohlone, has been charged with one count of continuous sexual abuse of a child and three counts of lewd or lascivious acts on a child, McGee wrote in a message sent districtwide to parents, faculty and staff on Thursday evening. Ohlone Principal Nicki Smith also sent a message to parents notifying them on Thursday.
The district became aware of the charges Thursday morning when Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Scott Bowers received a "court-ordered booking" via fax from the California Department of Justice listing the charges, McGee said.
After obtaining and reviewing related court documents and consulting with a district attorney, the district as of Thursday afternoon initiated dismissal proceedings for Airo, McGee said.
"Having read the allegations in the court document I am literally sickened and disgusted," McGee's message states. "Although these events allegedly transpired over a decade ago, we are immediately launching an investigation aimed at identifying any students who may have been victimized since then so we can provide them with all the support they might need."
The child, who will be identified as Jane Doe to protect her privacy, was a former female student in the district, now in her early 20s, who disclosed the alleged sexual abuse to her psychologist in 2014, according to a police report obtained by the Weekly. The Palo Alto Police Department conducted an investigation after receiving a report from the San Mateo County Department of Children and Family Services in May 2014.
Doe told police in June 2014 that years before, when Airo lived in her Palo Alto home as her mother's boyfriend, he would inappropriately kiss her breasts, stomach and buttocks while she was taking showers. The alleged abuse took place between 2002 and 2005, when she was between the ages of 11 and 13 years old, according to police. It never progressed beyond the kisses in the shower, Doe told police.
An attorney for Airo told Palo Alto police in September 2014 that Airo claimed innocence, but he did not provide a statement at the time, according to the police report. Airo did not immediately return a request for comment for this article.
In an interview with a Palo Alto police officer, Ohlone's Smith said she had not received nor heard of any complaints filed against Airo. She "described him as a teacher that gives his students a lot of attention and care" and said he had also become a "favorite teacher" with Ohlone parents.
"She said she would never imagine suspect Airo touching or harming the children in any way and does not know of any suspicious circumstances involving him," the police report states.
Doe first met Airo when she was 8 years old. He worked as an aide at an after-school daycare program at El Carmelo Elementary School in Palo Alto that she attended, according to police. At the time, she was a student at El Carmelo, police said.
Doe's older half-sister, close in age to Airo, worked at the same daycare program, according to police. Airo also worked at a summer camp that Doe attended, her mother told police. Airo was first hired by the district in 2008 to teach third grade at Juana Briones Elementary School and then transferred to Ohlone a year later, according to McGee.
When Doe began third or fourth grade, Airo and her mother started dating. In 2002, he moved in with the family Doe, her mother and half-sister into a new home in Palo Alto. He was in his young 20s at the time, much younger than Doe's mother and only two years older than her half-sister, Doe told police. He and Doe's mother had started dating shortly before he left the daycare program following a complaint filed by another parent, Doe's half-sister told police. (Police later interviewed this parent, who said she filed it because he was "overly involved" with her daughter and with Doe and "ignoring other children.")
As Airo's relationship progressed with Doe's mother, he "began to express more interest in being involved in (Doe's) life," the police report states. He would often ask her to sit on his lap, tuck her into bed at night, read her bedtime stories with the door shut and offer to pick her up after school and watch her until her mother got home, according to both Doe's and her mother's interviews with police.
Doe told police that it was when he watched her after school that he would "become more affectionate toward her." Once, when she was in sixth grade, she came home after what she believed to be cheerleading practice and was going to change out of her uniform, according to the police report. Before she could do so, Airo walked into her bedroom and sat down to talk to her. When she grabbed her clothing and started to walk to another room to change, he stopped her and told her that "since he was planning to be her father one day, it was OK if she wanted to change her clothes in front of him," Doe told police.
Airo frequently told Doe he wanted her to see him as a father figure, she told police. He said the same to Doe's mother, and his "desire to be a supportive male figure in (Doe's) life made a dating relationship more appealing to her," she told police.
Doe said throughout middle school and her freshman year, whenever she arrived home after school and took a shower, Airo would enter the bathroom to perform a "ritual" of saying he was going to brush his teeth or use the toilet, asking for a kiss and then kissing each of her breasts, stomach and butt cheeks in the same way, she told police. Doe told police that Airo would always approach her in these instances by asking to give her a kiss.
"He acted as if his request was normal," the police report states.
Doe's half-sister told police that she witnessed Airo walking out of the bathroom while Doe was taking a shower three or four times, each time when she had not been expected at home.
As Doe became older, she began to resist Airo's advances, but he was often "persistent" so she would eventually "give in to his requests," the police report states. He did walk into the bathroom less as she got older, she said.
Doe also told police that Airo took photographs of her while she was sleeping.
Doe's mother told police that Airo was far more affectionate with her daughter than with her and she felt like their relationship was focused on Doe. If the three of them were walking in public, Airo would "usually be found walking ahead of her holding hands with (Doe)," the report states. He would frequently go into her room at night to read her "bedtime stories," close the door and claim they "needed their privacy," the report states. On a family trip to Los Angeles, Airo returned from checking in at the front desk to say that there were not enough beds for everyone and that he and Doe would have to sleep in the same bed.
Doe's mother told police that "she did not feel as if her relationship with Airo was a loving relationship; she said it felt more like 'this relationship is convenient and I really like your kid.'"
Doe's half-sister said she never saw her mother and Airo "kiss, hug, hold hands or go out on dates."
Airo and Doe's mother ended their relationship in October 2007. Airo still attempted to be in Doe's life by attending her birthday party and asking if he could take her bowling. Doe's mother asked if she wanted to go and she said she felt uncomfortable; her mother assumed it was because they had broken up and didn't ask any other questions, according to the police report.
Doe told police she did not tell anyone about the alleged abuse until years later, after her mother and Airo had ended their relationship.
Airo, now 34, was charged on Dec. 28, 2015, with four felony counts: the continuous sexual abuse of a child under 14 - resident child molesting; and three instances of performing a lewd or lascivious act on a child by force, violence, duress, menace and fear, according to court documents.
Smith wrote in her message to parents that a substitute teacher has been placed to take over Airo's class.
Extra counseling support will be provided at Ohlone on Friday, McGee said.
"It's deeply disturbing, to say the least," McGee told the Weekly on Thursday. "We realize ... you're innocent until proven guilty, but given the severity of the allegations, the fact the charges have been filed (and) there's $500,000 bail, we think that initiating dismissal proceedings is certainly warranted."
McGee said he did not know if Airo was in or out of custody, but Airo did not respond to calls from Bowers.
McGee is encouraging anyone who suspects a current or former student may have been victimized by Airo to contact the Palo Alto Police Department and school district office. Police asked that anyone who believes that their child may be a victim call the department's 24-hour dispatch center at 650-329-2413.
According to a Palo Alto Police Department press release, detectives attempted to contact Airo to serve an arrest warrant issued by a judge on Jan. 6, but he self-surrendered at the Santa Clara County Main Jail on the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 13. He immediately posted $500,000 bail after being booked by the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, police said.
Detectives investigated Airo's work history with the school district, and determined there was no indication that there were any additional victims.
Explaining the stretch of one-and-a-half years in between learning of the abuse allegations and an arrest warrant being filed, Palo Alto police Sgt. James Reifschneider told the Weekly Friday that investigating allegations from more than a decade ago adds a "layer of complexity" -- tracking down witnesses or other people who might have pertinent information from that time -- to an already complex case. He said it is also "not uncommon" in a case of this nature for the police detectives to have a lot of back-and-forth collaboration with the district attorney's office, adding to the length of time.