UPDATE: Ronnie Farrell's sentencing, originally set for March 9, has been continued to April 27. He was taken into custody at his court appearance on March 9.
A former Palo Alto High School science teacher arrested last summer for committing sex crimes against a minor on campus has pleaded no contest to five felony sex-crime charges and faces a maximum of five years in state prison.
Ronnie Farrell, a 47-year-old biology teacher at Paly, plead no contest on Jan. 6 to four counts of committing a lewd or lascivious act on a child age 14 or 15 and a separate sexual-battery charge, according to court documents obtained by the Palo Alto Weekly. He had originally faced a total of nine counts stemming from two on-campus incidents.
Farrell was arrested on June 15 after a female student, who had been in Farrell's biology class that school year, reported to the police that he had inappropriately touched her in his classroom. The student was 15 years old at the time and had just completed her freshman year at Paly, according to police.
In pleading no contest, Farrrell agreed to what is called a "five-year state prison top," meaning that he could receive a sentence of up to five years in the state prison, said Santa Clara County District Attorney Steven DalPorto, the prosecutor assigned to the case.
"The judge will review the entire record — police reports, witness statements, victim impact statements, etc. — and decide on an appropriate sentence," DalPorto said.
Farrell also agreed to register as a lifetime sex offender and to pay full restitution to the student, court documents show. A protective order granted in August that prohibits him from contacting the student remains in place.
Farrell officially resigned from his teaching position the same day he pleaded no contest, according to Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Max McGee. Farrell had been on unpaid leave since his arrest. Farrell had taught biology and chemistry at Paly since 2012 — his first teaching job, according to the district. He was made a permanent staff member in the 2014-15 school year.
McGee said after the arrest that the district had not received any previous complaints about Farrell nor any indication that he engaged in this kind of behavior.
Court documents show the Commission on Teacher Credentialing has been periodically requesting court records on Farrell in consideration of potential mandatory revocation or denial of his teaching certification, most recently on Dec. 23.
A police report documents a range of in-person and online interactions between Farrell and the student over several days after the school year ended last June. On June 3, 2015, the day after the last day of school, Farrell asked her to help him clean his classroom; she obliged and told police it wasn't "out of the ordinary" to help teachers with "chores."
On June 7, she told police that Farrell again asked her to meet in her classroom. She told police that he touched her inappropriately multiple times. She recalled "feeling disappointed in herself because she was frozen, blanked out and in the moment didn't know what to do," the police report states. He later told her "not to tell anybody what happened and that he could get in a lot of trouble," the police report states.
Six days later, on June 13, the student's father reported to police that his daughter had been assaulted by one of her Paly teachers.
A Palo Alto Police Department sexual-assault detective, Joel Hornung, interviewed the student in person and viewed Facebook messages between her and Farrell. Screenshots of Facebook messages included in the police report show Farrell seeking to find out where the student lives and her whereabouts. He also asked her personal questions about her family, the report states. Multiple times, Farrell and the student communicated on Facebook until close to 4 a.m., the report notes.
On June 14 and 15, officers met with the student and composed Facebook messages to send to Farrell. In his responses, he described the assault as a "mistake" and wrote "you don't ever have to be scared for real around me."
They also had the student call Farrell. During the phone call, he apologized to the student. When she asked why he did what he did, he said: "Out of stupidity and exhaustion are the two things that I can say. Okay? I am sorry."
Farrell continued "to acknowledge he made a terrible mistake but asked her to remember what a great teacher he was," Hornung wrote.
Farrell is scheduled to be sentenced on March 9 at the Palo Alto Courthouse. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Vincent Chiarello is overseeing the case.