Mercedes ISD Superintendent Carolyn Mendiola was arrested for allegedly interfering with an investigation into an improper relationship between a teacher and a student, and Mercedes police say they are investigating more allegations of interference.
Police arrested Mendiola last week for interfering with a sexual misconduct investigation in May amid a deluge of misconduct allegations and safety transparency missteps at the district.
Mendiola’s attorney, state Rep. Terry Canales, steadfastly denied any wrongdoing on Tuesday and said the allegations are politically motivated.
Mendiola was arrested for interfering with public duties Friday, and a criminal complaint alleges she was charged because she yelled at police officers who were investigating reports of an inappropriate relationship between a student and an educator at Mercedes High and told the reporting parties not to cooperate with law enforcement until she allowed them to do so.
The complaint also indicates that it may not be the first time Mendiola has allegedly interfered with law enforcement investigations at the district.
On multiple occasions prior to and after the situation in May, the complaint says, Mendiola interfered with investigations by preventing employees from reporting incidents to police. In some investigations, police made arrests “months after the incidents happened due to the interference” of the superintendent.
“The defendant has no regard and uses her position as the Mercedes Independent School District Superintendent to intimidate and impede any investigation that arises until she decides when it will get done,” the complaint said.
Other allegations of interference are under investigation, Mercedes police Sgt. Francisco Sanchez said Tuesday, although he couldn’t say how many instances were being investigated or whether those investigations would rise to the level of criminal charges.
Sanchez said the department is currently trying to determine whether it will pursue other criminal charges.
“I don’t see why any superintendent — any, any, any, in the whole nation, in general — should hesitate to work with law enforcement when we’re working a case of a wrongdoing that was done to a child,” Sanchez said.
Canales, Mendiola’s attorney, denied those allegations Tuesday.
“Carolyn Mendiola is a lifelong educator with an impeccable reputation and held in the highest esteem in regard by her colleagues and those she works with,” he said. “As with many false allegations, the allegations against Ms. Mendiola are political, and not based in fact or reality. All those involved in this terrible injustice will be confronted and falter under the weight of the truth.”
Canales said his office has served the Mercedes school district, the Mercedes Police Department and the city of Mercedes with preservation of evidence demands to preserve evidence he says will exonerate Mendiola.
“If these charges are not administratively dismissed by the district attorney’s office for lack of credible evidence, we will proceed expeditiously to trial, where I have no doubt Ms. Mendiola will be cleared of all charges and the fallout for all those responsible will be severe,” Canales said.
Mercedes police denied any sort of political motivations for the arrest Tuesday.
Mercedes ISD Board President Oscar Hernandez said Tuesday afternoon that he had not yet been made aware of the details of the allegations against Mendiola.
“That’s news to me,” he said. “It’s disappointing if it’s in fact actually true, but again, the board hasn’t been addressed in that nature.”
The school board is slated to meet Thursday to discuss Mendiola’s employment with the district.
Asked about the allegations and whether Mercedes ISD intends to order any internal or external investigation into them, the district responded with a statement.
“The District is guided by and adheres to its local and legal policies associated with investigations,” it said. “Additionally, the District will continue to cooperate with local law enforcement regarding its inquiries to the District and our mutual pursuit of the protection of students, staff, and the community. As additional information becomes available, the District will explore any and all options to keep its students, staff, and community safe.”
Mendiola’s arrest is directly tied to her alleged conduct on May 9, when investigators were investigating sexual misconduct claims about Mercedes High School teacher Frank Fuentes.
Fuentes was ultimately charged with improper relationship between an educator and a student and two counts of indecency with a child (sexual contact) in May.
That day, a criminal complaint says, officers responded to the high school after an assistant principal became suspicious that a student was visiting Fuentes’ room a few times a week.
Four days prior to that, on May 5, the assistant principal had found Fuentes and the student alone in the teacher’s room, and she later saw the student leave the building with Fuentes behind her.
“(The assistant principal) stated that they proceeded to check previous days footage and that the pattern was the same each day,” it reads.
On May 9 the assistant principal and another assistant principal told police they had seen the student and Fuentes embrace, and one of them had seen them kiss.
Police asked how that assistant principal had seen the kiss, and he told them he had seen it through “a small hole” in a black paper covering the door to Fuente’s room. The assistant principal looked, stepped away and came back to take a photo through the paper, the complaint says.
The student and Fuentes had then been separated, it says.
The student was taken to a child advocacy center and told an investigator along the way that Fuentes had talked to her about renting her an apartment.
The complaint alleges that the student began communicating with Fuentes after meeting him on campus, and speaking with him through social media, emails, calls and text messages.
The relationship turned physical in February, the complaint says, when the pair began to kiss and hug in Fuentes’ classroom.
On May 9, they had met for that purpose three times, the complaint says.
On May 10, the complaint says investigators examined the student’s cellphone, where they discovered messages between the student and Fuentes “specifically describing their involvement in a romantic relationship with one another and conversations discussing sexual content with one another.”
Fuentes sent pictures of himself to the student, the complaint says, and responded to a photograph of the student’s lower body in underwear with a sexual message that said “…he would kidnap (her).” The complaint details other sexual messages between the pair.
‘OUT OF CONTROL’
A separate complaint details Mendiola’s alleged actions on May 9, while police were escorting Fuentes to a police squad car.
Mendiola was allegedly yelling at an investigator, saying she needed to conduct an administrative investigation and that police should not be there until she contacted them.
“The defendant was out of control impeding the investigators to conduct the investigation,” the criminal complaint said.
The student who was allegedly involved in a relationship with Fuentes was present while Mendiola was yelling and she was taken off site while Mendiola followed an investigator around telling him to stop what he was doing.
Mendiola told police that she wouldn’t let investigators take Fuentes’ and the student’s phones, it says, although they were later obtained by investigators.
The complaint says an investigator then told the reporting parties to go to the police department to make a statement.
“They agreed to provide a statement but later on sent an email stating that they were told by the defendant not to go to the police department and provide a statement until she (Mendiola) said so,” it reads.
Other than Fuentes and Mendiola’s arrests, Mercedes ISD has had at least two employees arrested this year: one was a security guard who was charged with making threats against the high school, and the other employee allegedly injured a disabled child.
Last year a coach at the district was arrested and charged with having an improper relationship with a student and subsequently charged with two counts of sexual assault.
Sanchez, the Mercedes police sergeant, declined to go into detail about any other investigations that Mendiola may have impeded.
He did, however, comment on communication lapses between the district and the police department on May 26, when the district and police informed the public about two separate threats.
In both instances, Sanchez essentially said the district diminished the severity of those threats.
The first resulted with the arrest of a 17-year-old who allegedly made a terroristic threat. Sanchez said the district referred to that threat as a “rumor.”
“I don’t call that a rumor, I call that a legitimate threat,” he said.
The second was allegedly caused by a security guard at the district, who police allege called in his own bomb scare after making previous threats.
The district referred to an evacuation caused by those threats as a “drill,” an unpopular choice of terminology with the community. Mendiola defended the term by saying the district routinely refers to actual evacuations as drills, in part to avoid panicking parents.
Sanchez, however, said there was no “drill” about it from the police department’s perspective, and underscored the importance of school safety in the wake of the Uvalde shooting tragedy. If something did happen in the “so-called drill,” he said, the blame would have fallen on the police department’s shoulders.
“We’re not going to sugarcoat anything and say that it was a drill, because it was not a drill,” Sanchez said. “At least to the police department, we don’t take that stuff as a drill. We act accordingly for the safety of the kids and the staff members, of course.”
Sanchez declined to say whether he felt the district had a transparency issue with law enforcement, but he did say that he would ask for more communication between the school system and the department.
“What I can say is they need to go in hand with what we’re saying, with what we’re releasing to the media. I’ve done some media statements where some of the reporters are off guard because the district is saying one thing,” he said, noting that the information contradicted police department information. “But I’m telling you, we’re going based on facts, I can’t go based on hearsay.”
Rumors of scandal at the district have run rampant in Mercedes for over a year, online and in-person.
The district acknowledged those rumors in releases about its threats on May 26, and Sanchez said he wished he could do more to address them Tuesday.
“I need these cases to go forward, with these victims or with these situations,” he said. “We’re not going to allow anybody to interfere with our cases, because we’re doing the right thing.”
Sanchez said concerned citizens can report tips to (888) 650-8477.