by Don Kazak and Elizabeth Darling
The arrest of a former Palo Alto school employee and volunteer on suspicion of two counts of child molestation has angered some parents who contend the community has not been adequately informed of the incident. Tupou David Schwenke, 37, a volunteer at several schools as well as Children's Theatre, was arrested Oct. 19 on suspicion of molesting two young girls. The arrest followed complaints by parents about his activities. He was released on $10,000 bail Nov. 23.
Some parents say they are frustrated because neither the police nor the the Palo Alto Unified School District has done enough to get the word out about the arrest. They believe the suspect is a danger to other children in the community.
"Other parents should know this," said Karin Tanaka, whose child had been in a class in which Schwenke had volunteered. "We think the community should know this," she said.
Her husband, Toru Tanaka, added, "We've been suppressed in getting the information out."
Schwenke's attorney says the charges against his client are false and that the parents of the two alleged victims don't want to press charges.
"He hasn't committed any crime," said Public Defender Stephen Elrick. He said he based his conclusion on listening to the tapes of the police interviews with the two girls and with Schwenke. He said he would not allow his client to speak with the press.
"The parents of the alleged minor victims don't want to pursue any charges," Elrick said. "The parents don't want their girls to testify."
According to police, the two girls involved in the case are between the ages of 7 and 9, and the alleged incidents occurred between April 1991 and last June. They did not happen on school grounds.
Schwenke had volunteered in at least five Palo Alto schools over the last two years: Hoover, Juana Briones, El Carmelo, Addison and Walter Hays, mostly in kindergarten classes. While not a parent of a child in Palo Alto schools, Schwenke has worked as a nanny or domestic help in a Palo Alto home.
He also was employed by the district as a language tutor from March 1991 to June 1992, when he was paid hourly and worked at several schools.
In at least two instances, principals have asked Schwenke to discontinue his services. In one case, it was because of parental concern, in another it was because of what a principal considered inappropriate behavior, although there was no evidence of physical or verbal abuse in either case.
In addition to school work, police say that Schwenke has also been involved in children's programs at the Children's Theatre, Palo Alto Parents and Professionals for Arts (PAPPA), the Jewish Community Center and as a youth soccer coach.
Pat Einfalt, associate superintendent for certificated human resources, said a background check was done on Schwenke before he was allowed to be a school district employee. Volunteers do not have background checks. Einfalt and Superintendent Jim Brown said they were not aware of Schwenke's arrest until just before Thanksgiving. Brown then called all the affected principals together to inform them and asked the district personnel department to check Schwenke's records.
"When it came to our attention that this person had been employed at our schools we became concerned," Brown said. "This is a very serious charge."
Brown said the Tanakas expressed concern to him last week about informing parents. "I told them I would review the issue of communication and press releases," Brown said. He said he called the police to see if they intended to issue a press release.
Palo Alto Police Capt. Tom Merson said no announcement of the arrest was made because the investigating officers didn't think it would lead to the identification of additional alleged victims.
"I made the determination that the molest was more of an opportunity, in a certain atmosphere, which (the suspect) did not have in the (school) jobs," said Detective Luis Verbera, who interviewed the two victims and Schwenke before his arrest.
Verbera had been in contact with the principal of the victims' school before and after the arrest, he said. Schwenke was not a district employee or a volunteer at the time of his arrest.
At Hoover School, where Schwenke was a kindergarten volunteer, "we asked him to stop volunteering" more than a year ago, said Principal Kay van der Berg. "One parent suggested discomfort so I asked him not to volunteer."
At El Carmelo, Principal Elayne Goodman said Schwenke worked as a paid primary language tutor about three years ago. "There was no instance of reporting any physical or verbal abuse of any kind," she said. "I just did not feel that he was behaving suitably. I asked (the district) to have him removed from the school. There are times that a person who works with children doesn't act appropriately."
Schwenke's preliminary hearing is scheduled for Dec. 15.
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