As the trial began Thursday in a long-awaited sexual abuse case, attorneys presented dueling views of a former Long Beach Unified teacher as either a predatory older adult or a caring father figure.
In her opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Elyse Rendon told jurors that Mark Santo, 54, targeted students with a difficult home life, gained their trust and then used that trust to abuse them.
“When you hear what happened to them, … these three young girls, although different, had two things in common: (Santo) became a trusted adult in their life and then broke that trust,” Rendon said.
Meanwhile, defense attorney Bryan Schroeder told jurors that Santo was a revered teacher during his 15-year career at Lindbergh Middle School and Jordan High School. The accusations, according to Schroeder, are false.
“It’s not really an original plot, and it’s as old as time itself,” Schroeder said. “Mark is innocent; he’s never engaged in any misconduct with a child. It just didn’t happen. These girls are lying.”
Santo is facing six felony counts related to sexually abusing or assaulting three former students from Jordan or Lindbergh. Prosecutors allege two of them were underage at the time of the abuse, which they said took place over the span of years.
As early as 2013, authorities allege, Santo was starting to show “red flags” and was reprimanded by administrators for acting inappropriately with female students on social media by liking their pictures and sending them comments.
One of Santo’s victims was in his eighth-grade history class around this time, according to prosecutors, who said the student had a close relationship with Santo and confided in him about her issues at home.
After she didn’t feel well at school one day, Santo told the student that she could spend the day in an adjoining auxiliary room, Rendon told jurors. The student agreed and spent much of the day lying down on a couch in the room when, at one point, according to Rendon, she felt Santo’s body press against her as he caressed her thigh.
The student brushed the incident off and didn’t tell anyone because Santo, at the time, was the most trusted adult in her life, according to Rendon. But as she got older, she came to the understanding that Santo’s actions weren’t appropriate, the student testified in court.
Santo’s behavior continued in 2015 during a sleepover his daughter was hosting at home, authorities allege.
According to Rendon, the children had been told to go to bed, but one of them, an eighth-grader that had befriended Santo’s daughter, was still awake and using her phone when Santo approached her.
In response, the girl pretended to be asleep, and that’s when Santo laid next to her and started touching her hip and eventually her vagina, Rendon said. The girl didn’t tell anyone about the incident and eventually moved out of state before coming forward with her story years later, according to Rendon.
Santo was again under scrutiny in February 2018, while employed at Jordan, after another teacher overheard some students talking about Santo hugging them. This led to a meeting with the administration, where Santo allegedly admitted to engaging in a consensual sexual act with a former LBUSD student who was 18 years old.
The student described the situation differently, accusing Santo of forcing oral sex on her as his family was sleeping at his home, according to authorities.
According to Rendon, Santo told the student, “This is what I’ve been waiting for,” after he sexually assaulted her.
Despite authorities learning of this incident in 2018, Santo was not charged with a crime until 2020. Police said this is because they lost contact with the alleged victim.
In the meantime, Santo was allowed to quietly resign from Jordan High School, and the Long Beach Unified School District agreed not to reveal the circumstances of his departure to any new employer unless he would be working with children, according to public records obtained by the Long Beach Post in 2020.
Because of this, Santo was able to get a new job teaching students with developmental and learning disabilities at the Anaheim-based North Orange Continuing Education. Santo left or lost that job shortly after the Post reported on the situation.
Santo was ultimately taken into custody in 2020 after police gathered information from all three alleged victims.
At trial, he’s facing six felonies: two counts of assault with the intent to commit mayhem, rape, sodomy, or oral copulation; two counts of lewd or lascivious conduct with a child under 14 years old; one count of lewd or lascivious conduct with a child 14 or 15 years of age; and one count of forcible sexual penetration by means of force, violence, duress, menace, or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury.
Court records show he has been free on bond since June 19, 2020.
Prosecutors say all of Santo’s victims come from similar backgrounds where they struggled with school and were experiencing troubles with their families when they met Santo, who then positioned himself as a father figure who encouraged them to do well in class before eventually abusing them.
During her opening statement to the jury, Rendon used Santo’s social media activity to cast him as a predator.
Santo had been reprimanded while teaching at Lindbergh Middle School for liking female students’ photos from his Instagram handle @msanto69. And Rendon highlighted a comment from his Snapchat account on a photo of one of the alleged victims sticking her tongue out. According to Redon, Santo wrote, “don’t stick it out unless you’re planning on using it.”
Rendon said jurors will also see evidence that includes a T-shirt worn by the victim that Santo allegedly forced himself on. The shirt had been tested for DNA evidence, which revealed seminal fluids belonging to Santo, she said.
Schroeder, meanwhile, painted Santo as a caring teacher who always went above and beyond to make sure his students succeeded.
He cast Santo’s behavior as normal, telling jurors how students would often hug him and hang out in his classroom because he had created a safe environment for them.
Out of more than 7,000 students that Santo had taught over the course of his career, Schroeder said, none had ever reported him for any sexual misconduct.
“These allegations just never happened,” Schroeder said. “If he’s guilty of one thing, it’s being a good teacher.”