POPE VALLEY, Calif. (KRON) — A former employee of Pope Valley Elementary School in Napa County was arrested on Saturday for 19 felony counts related to having sexual contact with children. A parent told KRON4 that many parents have temporarily pulled their kids from the school as concerns linger.
The Napa County Sheriff’s Office charged 33-year-old Benjamin Casas with:
- 10 felony counts of lewd act upon a child under the age of 14
- 4 felony counts of lewd act upon a child aged 14 or 15
- 2 felony counts of forced oral copulation with a child over the age of 14
- 3 felony counts of oral copulation with a child under the age of 14
“We were blown away,” parent Sheena Uhl said of her reaction to hearing the charges. “The amount of offenses, the violence of the offenses, the fact that he used his position at the school to coerce the children and threaten them…”
Uhl, who has three children at Pope Valley, heard rumors about Benjamin Casas when she first enrolled her daughter at the school in the 2018-19 school year. The rumors consisted of Casas, who worked for the school for more than seven years, having “inappropriate contact” with two boys at his previous job at a St. Helena Catholic School.
“We all talk about it in the neighborhood. The kids know about it. There’s people over here that speak Russian, don’t even speak English, that know,” she told KRON4.
Uhl said she did not talk to the school about the rumors directly, but she assumed the school had done its due diligence and did not find incriminating evidence. Four years later, Casas was placed in handcuffs and parents are refusing to send their kids to school.
“Unbelievable” level of access
Uhl says Casas worked with items such as computers and cameras at Pope Valley. The school described his role as, “a classified employee (not a teacher) who held roles as a lunch supervisor, technology assistant, and facilities coordinator.”
While at Pope Valley, Uhl said Casas was in contact with students frequently. She said it was routine for him to do things like hand laptops to her daughter.
“The access level given to him was unbelievable,” Uhl said.
The Napa County Sheriff’s Office said Casas made sexual contact with children in areas including “private areas of the Pope Valley Elementary School campus.” Authorities said the incidents dated back as far as 12 years. They said he also gave dance and piano instruction to children in Pope Valley and St. Helena.
Uhl said Casas was at an end-of-year water party at the end of the 2021-22 school year. The party was held at the school, and students were encouraged to wear bathing suits. Casas was there taking photographs, but the pictures that he took were never sent to any of the families.
Uhl said parents are concerned by the access Casas had to cameras, mentioning that people are afraid that cameras might have been hidden in private areas of the school. Some of the parents holding their children out are demanding that a sweep is done of the school’s electronics to ensure that there are no hidden cameras on the campus or spyware on the computers.
Questionable employment status
Casas was placed on administrative leave in 2019, former Pope Valley Principal Ken Burkhart told the Napa Valley Register.
However, Casas’ role with school did not end there. Uhl said he remained at the school up until the time of his arrest, performing his regular duties. He was not listed as an employee, but he still had a school email address.
”He was basically doing the same job he was doing before,” she said. “He just wasn’t a school employee.”
On June 1, 2022, Uhl said neighbors saw police vehicles around Casas’ home, sparking speculation that the investigation was ramping back up. When the 2022-23 school year came around, he was still seen around the school. Uhl said she assumed that nothing came from the investigation.
Students have been infrequent at the school since Casas’ arrest over the weekend. Uhl says there are only 57 students at the school, and she only spotted three on the typically-packed bus when it drove by her house Tuesday.
How much was the school involved?
Uhl says she and other parents have concerns about the school’s handling of the situation.
The former principal of the school, Ken Burkhart, left to take a job at the Alpine County Unified School District near Lake Tahoe before this school year. His tenure was mired with skepticism from parents about how the Casas situation was handled.
“We feel that the safety of our children has been taken advantage of and the wool has been pulled over our eyes for a decade now,” Uhl said.
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A main concern is that Casas has several family members who work for the school, Uhl said. She reported that his wife is a school secretary, and his mother, father and sister-in-law are involved as well. The school’s website lists Yadira Casas as a school secretary. Even with this proximity, the school claims it did not know details about the investigation and did not say anything publicly to families.
“It was kept so quiet that it seems probable that it was more than just him involved in this situation,” Uhl said.
The presence of his family is among the factors that have made parents feel uneasy to send their children back.
“The kids have nowhere to turn to. It’s not a safe space for them to share anything that happened,” Uhl said.
In an email to KRON4, the school declined to comment on the employment status of Casas’ family members, citing “confidential employment matters.”
Uhl says the school’s prior administration had a history of “sweeping things under the rug.” She mentioned an employee who came under fire regarding embezzlement, saying Burkhart asked the employee to retire rather than firing her outright.
Uhl will not send her children back to school until further notice, when she feels safe to do so. She worries about Casas’ family being at the school and the possibility of hidden cameras.
“They completely failed our children and us as parents, and we’re now worried that they’re gonna retaliate against our children,” Uhl said of Casas’ family members being at the school.
Families have asked for the school to send assignments for students to work on from home, but Uhl said the school has not confirmed that it will be able to do so.
There will be a school board meeting Wednesday night to discuss what to do moving forward.