Jurors on Monday convicted a former Long Beach Unified School District teacher of sexually abusing two of his students and a friend of his daughter.
After less than a day of deliberations, jurors concluded Mark Santo, 54, sexually assaulted two girls between 2013 and 2015 and forced oral sex on an 18-year-old former student.
During a weeklong trial, Santo’s victims testified about the abuse. One student who had Santo as a teacher at Lindbergh Middle School said he touched her inappropriately under the guise of comforting her during the 2012-13 school year.
Another said Santo stood over her and fondled her during a sleepover that Santo’s daughter hosted.
The third victim said Santo forced her into performing oral sex on him while at his family home in 2018.
After assaulting her, Santo said, “This is what I’ve been waiting for,” according to prosecutors.
On Monday, jurors found Santo guilty of six charges: two counts of lewd acts on a child under 14, forcible sexual penetration, forcible oral copulation, assault with intent to commit forcible oral copulation and assault with intent to commit forcible sexual penetration. Jurors also found true the allegation of multiple victims.
During the trial, Santo’s attorney argued he’d been nothing but supportive to his students, who were undergoing troubles at home, but prosecutors cast him as a predator taking advantage of vulnerable girls.
Santo’s accusers testified about how he groomed them for sexual abuse by making them feel seen as children. When he assaulted them, they said, they felt they couldn’t speak up about it because he was the most trusted adult in their life.
“He was there for me all the time,” one of his accusers said in court, describing how Santo made her feel like she mattered, but as she got older, she came to the realization that his behavior was inappropriate.
Santo later testified in his own defense, insisting his accusers were either lying or misconstruing his genuine emotional support as inappropriate flirtations.
During closing arguments Friday, Deputy District Attorney Elyse Rendon emphasized how Santo’s actions revealed a pattern of being attracted to young girls. His position as a teacher allowed him to prey on them, she said.
She explained how under the ruse of being the “good teacher,” Santo would take his time earning the trust of his victims before getting them alone in his classroom or home where “he has the control and they don’t have any.”
He’d then use the opportunity “to pursue his own sexual gratification,” Rendon said.
“Everyone agrees that (Santo) meant the world to these girls up until the time he betrayed them,” Rendon told jurors.
Rendon also attacked Santo’s testimony, saying his answers seemed too “polished,” almost as if they had been rehearsed.
“It’s an insult to your intelligence,” she told jurors.
Santo lied to jurors, according to Rendon, when he tried to explain away a message he’d sent to one of the underage students. He admitted he’d texted the girl “hubba, hubba” when talking about the idea of her wearing a bikini, but he insisted it wasn’t inappropriate—saying he was simply trying to uplift her. Santo said he would’ve said the same thing to his daughter.
“It’s ridiculous and a lie,” Rendon said. “Nobody would say that to their daughter. It’s disgusting.”
Santo’s attorney, Bryan Schroeder, argued the allegations against Santo were a “twisted fabrication,” and that the messages jurors had seen during trial were taken out of context.
“They want to assassinate his character,” Schroeder said, adding that prosecutors had done everything they could to “create proof.”
Though he never denied that Santo sent the messages in question to his accusers, or that he had sexual relations with a former student, Schroeder argued that prosecutors scoured the last decade of Santo’s life and cherrypicked bits and pieces of information to make him look bad. The 54-year-old had never actually done anything illegal, Schroeder argued.
“They’re trying to convict this man by making you hate him,” Schroeder said. “Are you kidding me? A man’s life is on the line.”
Santo worked at the Long Beach Unified School District for 15 years, including stints at Lindbergh Middle School and Jordan High School.
He resigned in 2018 after administrators sought to reprimand him for being too demonstrative with students. During the conversation about his behavior, Santo revealed he’d had a consensual sexual relationship with the 18-year-old former student.
After the revelation, the LBUSD allowed Santo to leave quietly with a promise that they wouldn’t reveal his misconduct to prospective employers unless he were working with minors.
Santo was able to get a new job teaching disabled adults at an Orange County community college before police finished their investigation and arrested him in 2020.
Jurors ultimately disagreed with Santo’s assessment of the situation, saying his interaction with the 18-year-old former student was not consensual—it was sexual assault.