San Bernardino County sheriff’s investigators arrested Joseph Michael Nardella, 53, at his Highland home one day after receiving a complaint by a former Clement Middle School student, now 18, who alleges he was sexually abused by Nardella from the time he was 12 until he was 17.
Nardella was booked into the Central Detention Center in San Bernardino on suspicion of continuous sexual abuse of a minor under the age of 14, and is being held on $350,000 bail, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
Detectives from the sheriff’s Crimes Against Children Detail said they believe there may be other victims of Nardella.
Nardella’s arrest is the latest development in a sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Redlands Unified School District for the past decade, prompting the district to pay out more than $41 million since 2016 to settle lawsuits filed by former students alleging they were preyed on and sexually abused by teachers.
However, no such allegations had surfaced since the district adopted a series of reforms in 2018 designed to educate administrators, teachers and staff about their responsibilities to report such abuses.
School district spokeswoman Christine Stephens did not immediately respond to questions Friday seeking response to Nardella’s arrest and his employment history with the district.
District teacher since 1997
But according to the school district’s website, Nardella has been a seventh-grade world history teacher and eighth-grade U.S. history teacher at Clement Middle School since it opened in 1997.
On his own web page, Nardella said he has been Clement’s social studies department chair for the past 15 years and runs the school’s lunchtime intramural sports program.
Nardella is not the first Clement teacher arrested for allegedly sexually abusing students. Former Clement English teacher Sean Ramiro Lopez was arrested in February 2002 on suspicion of sexually abusing three students, all preteen and teen-age boys, from late 1999 to 2001.
Lopez waived his right to a jury trial, and a judge convicted him in 2006 of 60 felony counts, including lewd and lascivious acts on a minor under the age of 14. Lopez was sentenced to 74 years in prison and is serving his sentence at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione.
Attorney Morgan Stewart, whose Irvine law firm Manly, Stewart & Finaldi specializes in child sex abuse cases, represented some of Lopez’s victims in civil litigation that the school district settled in September 2021 for $11 million.
Stewart also represents Nardella’s alleged victim, and said Friday that he plans to file a lawsuit next week against the district and Nardella.
“This arrest is unsurprising given the climate of cover-up that existed at Clement Middle School,” Stewart said in an email Friday.
In the Lopez case, Stewart presented evidence showing that Marilyn Kemple, who served as principal at Clement when Lopez taught there from September 1999 until his arrest in 2002, was warned as early as 1999 about Lopez’s inappropriate behavior by students and parents, but failed to call police and take proper action.
Kemple, according to Stewart, called at least one student a liar and threatened to expel her for reporting Lopez.
“We are proud of this young man coming forward and reporting this abuse,” Stewart said Friday of Nardella’s alleged victim. He said some of the alleged sexual abuse occurred at Clement, but most occurred at Nardella’s home.
Nardella has been placed on administrative leave by the school district, according to a sheriff’s press release.
A yearlong investigation by the Southern California News Group revealed that, for nearly two decades, the district covered up allegations of sexual abuse involving students and ordered teachers and other staff not to cooperate with police during criminal investigations.
In most cases, school district administrators were aware of what was going on and failed as mandated reporters to take appropriate action. Mandated reporters are professionals who have regular contact with children and are required by law to report suspected sexual abuse to police or child services authorities.
Along with Lopez, among the most serious allegations against teachers involved those against former Citrus Valley soccer coach and English teacher Laura Whitehurst, who bore the daughter of one of her students, and former Redlands High School golf coach and math teacher Kevin Patrick Kirkland, who for years preyed on and groomed vulnerable teenage girls for sex.
Staff Writer Scott Schwebke contributed to this report