Each parent, one by one, their eyes swollen and red from tears, stood before the D.C. judge and spoke about how their children had been sexually assaulted by an elementary school teacher they all trusted.
One woman said the teacher, Manuel Garcia Fernandez, who taught at the Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB) Public Charter School, gave her son piano lessons in the basement of his home when the boy was in the fourth and fifth grade. Her son, now 9 years old, later told her that Fernandez molested him and made him watch pornographic movies.
The mother of another victim said her son climbed on his therapist’s desk earlier this year and tried to open the window to jump out of it, his second attempt at suicide this year. And another woman, a 27-year D.C. police officer, said she feels guilty that she spent so much time protecting citizens of the District but was unable to protect her 9-year-old son from being molested by his teacher.
Fernandez, 36, sat next to his attorney as each of the parents spoke in D.C. Superior Court on Friday. He often shook his right foot and, at times, shook his head. In June, Fernandez pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting six of his students, and as part of that plea deal prosecutors said they would not ask for more than eight years in prison. Judge Judith Bartnoff sentenced Fernandez to the full eight-year sentence.
In court Friday, prosecutors announced that during their investigation they learned that Fernandez might have assaulted 13 more children during the same time period, from 2015 to 2017, with many of the assaults occurring at the Northwest Washington school where he taught. His attorney, Bernie Grimm, disputed many of those claims.
“He changed what was supposed to be a safe place for children into his den of sexual pleasure,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Brooks told the judge.
During the highly emotional sentencing, family members of the children and school staff members, many wearing light-blue ribbons to support abused children, gathered in the courtroom.
Fernandez’s wife, parents and in-laws, along with a half-dozen friends and supporters, also attended.
When Fernandez was arrested in February, prosecutors said he preyed on his students as they played games such as hide-and-seek.
Fernandez, a father of three young boys who also performed as a musician under the name Teddy Dos Dedos Garcia, apologized to the children and their parents.
“It was a mistake. I committed a terrible mistake, and I am very ashamed and I am very sorry,” Fernandez said. “I am sorry I failed you.”
Bartnoff also ordered Fernandez to be on supervised supervision for 25 years after his release from prison, to register as a child sex offender for life and to not have any unsupervised visits with children, including his own.
Fernandez is expected to be deported to his native country of Spain after his release from prison in about seven years. The judge gave him credit for time served in D.C. jail since his arrest. He has been held there on 24-hour isolation to protect him from other inmates.
This week, officials at Fernandez’s former school announced that three of the school’s top leaders, including the principal and school psychologist, will leave their posts by Dec. 15. The executive director will leave at the end of the school year.
The school’s board said the three officials failed to ensure the safety of students after educators raised concerns about Fernandez’s behavior. Prosecutors said Fernandez was disciplined by the school in 2015 for similar behavior but was rehired.
One father who spoke at the sentencing said that his son was molested “a lot of times” by Fernandez, and that he could not shake the “irony” that he and his wife had been concerned about finally allowing their 8-year-old son to walk six blocks to and from school by himself.
“The irony was that it wasn’t what could happen in the city that we had to worry about. It was what happened at the school. And that irony will haunt me for the rest of my life,” he said.