It is business as usual at School Volunteers for New Haven, Inc., just as it was four years ago, before one of their volunteers was charged with sexually assaulting a child he mentored through the program.
That volunteer was former Saybrook College Master and Yale geology professor Antonio Lasaga, who recently pleaded no contest to charges that he sexually assaulted the young boy over a period of five years.
In 1999, the boy and his mother sued Lasaga, Yale, and the New Haven Board of Education, which oversees the volunteer program. Among other things, the lawsuits — which are still pending — allege that Yale and the Board of Education failed to properly investigate Lasaga’s past before allowing him to mentor children.
And despite the widespread publicity of the Lasaga case and the lawsuits, their effect on New Haven’s mentoring programs appears to have been all but nonexistent. Officials from several programs said there have been no changes in the way prospective mentors are screened.
“[The Lasaga case had] virtually no effect on our program,” said Alison Chapman, the director of School Volunteers for New Haven, Inc. “Since our program is an in-school program, we can’t be held responsible [for Lasaga’s actions].”
School Volunteers for New Haven, Inc., is the main volunteer office of the Board of Education. It has been in operation for 35 years.
Chapman said screening procedures usually used by the office include a background check conducted by a potential mentor’s business or by the New Haven Police Department.
Chapman would not say whether Lasaga was screened prior to becoming a mentor.
“If he was good enough for Princeton, Harvard and Yale, he was good enough to mentor,” she said.
Court documents explaining the lawsuit against the Board of Education allege that the board “failed to investigate the backgrounds of the persons they retained as mentors.”
And the lawsuit filed against Yale alleges that “Lasaga had the propensity and profile of a pedophile.”
In 1981, Lasaga was arrested on charges of molesting two young boys in Pennsylvania. The charges were quickly dropped after Lasaga passed a lie-detector test, so he has no public criminal record in that state.
After he joined the Yale faculty in 1982, Lasaga was twice accused of touching young boys at a pool at the Hamden YMCA, although he never faced criminal charges.
But it remains unclear whether even a thorough check could have discovered such allegations, hidden deep in the prominent professor’s past.
Other mentoring programs in the New Haven area, including the Leadership, Education & Athletics in Partnership program, regularly use background and reference checks to protect the children they serve.
Renata Cobbs Fletcher, LEAP’s director of development, said the organization has begun to enforce background and reference checks for potential mentors because of other cases of child abuse.
“I don’t know what the discussion [about the Lasaga case] was among the site staff,” Fletcher said. “It didn’t necessarily cause a panic because of a lack of comparison [to our program].”
Fletcher said the fact that LEAP uses younger mentors made the case seem less applicable.
Kyle Mushkin, the current program director of the New Haven branch of Jumpstart, a national mentoring program, said the organization has been using background checks to screen mentors since the program’s inception.
Mentors in the Jumpstart program are also state-mandated reporters of child sexual abuse, which means they are trained to recognize possible signs of abuse in children they work with, Mushkin said.
Jumpstart Network Vice President Anthony deGuzman served as program director of Jumpstart New Haven when the Lasaga case became public.
He said Jumpstart has some of the stricter screening procedures in the area and criticized other programs’ policies.
“Some organizations, I know, should change,” deGuzman said.
Despite the nature of the Lasaga case, however, officials from most mentoring organizations said they have seen no evidence of parental concern about the safety of their programs.
Nor have they been hesitant about accepting Yale students, faculty and staff as mentors for their programs.
“I would like to see more participation from Yale in our program,” Chapman said. “[The Lasaga case] was an aberration.”
–Staff Reporter Brian Ginsberg contributed to this story.