A former D.C. elementary school teacher on Friday admitted to sexually abusing six of his students between 2015 and 2017, including one boy he lured to a basement to play hide-and-seek.
In a crowded courtroom in D.C. Superior Court, Manuel Garcia Fernandez, 35, who taught at Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB) Public Charter School, pleaded guilty to two charges of felony second-degree child sexual abuse, one count of attempted child sexual abuse and three counts of misdemeanor child sexual abuse.
Fernandez was arrested in February on charges that he sexually assaulted three of his students. Investigators interviewed 22 children after Fernandez’s arrest and identified three other children who they say Fernandez touched inappropriately.
It was an emotional hearing for family members of the children, several of whom were crying and wiping tears. One parent squeezed a rubber stress ball in her hand as she listened to the charges. Another couple held hands.
Fernandez’s wife sat in the front row of the audience on the opposite side of the courtroom, surrounded by about 15 friends and family members. Fernandez’s three children were not present.
As part of his plea deal with prosecutors, Fernandez faces between a minimum of a year and a half to a maximum of eight years in prison. He also will be required to register as a sex offender. The government agreed it would not file any additional charges in the case.
If he had gone to trial and been convicted, he would have faced more than 25 years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 7 by Judge Judith Bartnoff.
When defendants in child sexual abuse cases agree to such pleas, prosecutors and judges often agree on lighter prison sentences to spare child victims the emotional stress of having to testify.
Fernandez has been in D.C. jail since his arrest. Wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, he stood next to his attorney Bernard Grimm as prosecutors outlined the details of each of the incidents.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jessi Brooks and J. Matt Williams, in one instance, Fernandez invited one of the children to the basement of the Northwest Washington school for hide-and-seek. While in the basement, Fernandez reached into the boy’s pants and fondled him. In two separate instances, Fernandez admitted to fondling two female students through their clothes. With another victim, Fernandez admitted touching the child’s buttocks.
Bartnoff asked Fernandez if the prosecutor’s details were correct.
“Yes, your honor,” Fernandez said.
Grimm argued his client still had to complete a psychological examination, which was one of the reasons the sentencing is not scheduled until after Labor Day. Fernandez, who is from Spain, faces deportation after he completes his prison term.
Outside the courtroom, Grimm said Fernandez was isolated at the jail because he had been assaulted several times.
After the hearing, most of the parents who poured into the hallway declined to speak publicly. But the mother of one 9-year-old victim called the case was “every parent’s worst nightmare.”
The mother said a possible maximum of eight years in prison was not enough. She believed Fernandez should have a harsher punishment.
“You send your child to school expecting them to be safe. These children may have more than eight years of trauma because of his actions,” she said. “This man’s actions could result in a lifetime sentence of heartache and trauma for these children that may not materialize until years from now.”