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Less than three weeks after being confronted by school officials over a sexual abuse allegation, a DCPS teacher took his own life.
John Domenick Bontempo, a 45-year-old third grade teacher at Neval Thomas Elementary School in Northeast, was in the process of taking on a formal mentoring role with a D.C. youth when the situation turned tragic. The mother of the minor accused him of child sexual abuse, setting off police and school investigations that were underway when Bontempo committed suicide in late August, according to police reports and interviews with a number of investigating agencies.
Karen Douglas, program manager with the National Center for Children and Families, notified the Metropolitan Police Department on Aug. 26 that she had received an emailed suicide threat that morning from Bontempo, who taught writing, social studies, and science.
“Apparently there had been some allegation regarding a young person [Bontempo] had contact with,” says Douglas, who until then had been unaware of the situation. “He didn’t mention specifics, but he was devastated that anyone would think he would have such a relationship given how close he was to the youth and the family. He said goodbye, and that he knew the action he was going to take was going to impact people who cared about him.”
Douglas, a licensed clinical social worker, tells City Paper that she received the email—as did other social service providers—at 7:28 a.m. She describes a frantic search of client files in an effort to locate Bontempo, during which her staff discovered that the youth in question—the brother of a former Bontempo student—is a ward of the city. MPD referred the call to Prince George’s County Police, who responded to his home in Hyattsville, Maryland, at 9:40 a.m.
“Upon arrival there was no response at the door and after several attempts [the officer] called the rental office who provided a key to gain entry at the [location of interest],” the police report reads. “As officers entered, [Bontempo] was on the floor with a rifle in his hand and self-inflicted gunshot wound to the upper body.” The report goes on to say that Bontempo “died of self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
An official at Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner confirms the cause of death as “contact gunshot wounds of head and torso” and says the office has ruled it a suicide.
Officials would not disclose the precise nature of the alleged abuse, but the existence of the allegation before Bontempo’s death gives rise to equally troubling scenarios—that he took advantage of his proximity to a minor, or that he was a victim of a false allegation so tormented by the potential outcome that he killed himself—with a lot of gray in between.
“It’s that day you don’t want to have, whether you knew the person or not,” Douglas says. “An investigation was in process, and I don’t know that it got to the end before he took the action that he took. Now we don’t know what the outcome was going to be—and he doesn’t either.”
Though the educator’s death went unreported in the local media, an obituary in his hometown newspaper, the Observer-Reporter in Pennsylvania, describes him as a popular teacher who worked in DCPS for almost 20 years. The condolences page mentions numerous schools where he taught, most recently at Neval Thomas Elementary. The obituary describes him as “a happy-go-lucky guy who [was] always trying to make everyone laugh,” someone who “liked to sing, dance, and listen to Barry Manilow.”
It notes that Bontempo loved being a teacher: “It is my philosophy that ALL children can learn,” he was fond of saying. Those words are also included in his teacher bio that is still posted on the Neval Thomas Elementary website.
In an Aug. 29 letter to families of Neval Thomas students, which DCPS provided to City Paper, school principal Davia Walker wrote that Bontempo had “passed away,” and assured them that DCPS had deployed clinical social workers and school psychologists to “support students, parents, and staff during this difficult time.”
In the weeks leading up to his death, Bontempo had come under DCPS scrutiny over his relationship with the youth. And it wasn’t limited to the school district. According to an official with the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation, the youth is under a juvenile commitment order, and Bontempo was being vetted to become his foster parent. Months earlier, numerous service providers received a sexual abuse allegation against Bontempo via email from the minor’s mother, who enclosed a screenshot of a text message to Bontempo that she found on her son’s cell phone, the official says. A July 27 MPD public incident report confirms that Bontempo was being investigated over the claim. “On June 9th … a mandated reporter reports that Subject-1 disclosed allegations of sexual abuse involving Subject-2,” the report reads. “The case is being investigated by Youth and Family Services Division.”
Mandated reporters are individuals who in their professional or official capacities know or have reasonable cause to suspect that a youth is a victim of sexual abuse or attempted sexual abuse. Teachers, coaches, nurses, and social workers are among the many mandated reporters under D.C. law. According to the incident report, the case was assigned to Officer Joseph Hudson of the Youth and Family Services Division. He investigated and initially determined the allegation to be unfounded, though the matter remains under investigation, says Karima Bilal of MPD’s Office of Communications. The D.C. code defines an unfounded allegation as one made maliciously or in bad faith, or that has no basis in fact.
Hudson could not establish probable cause to make an arrest based on the information he had at the time, but he brought the allegation to the attention of school officials after he learned that Bontempo was a teacher, according to the DYRS official.
DCPS officials confronted Bontempo with the allegation during a meeting in early August, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting. Less than three weeks later, he committed suicide.
Bontempo’s relationship with the youth and his family appears to have been an informal one, dating to when the youth’s brother was his student. According to the condolences page on his obituary, Bontempo was known as a generous friend and mentor to children outside of school. During a recent City Paper visit to one of his former residences in Hyattsville, Bontempo’s former neighbor recalls that he often brought teenage boys to his apartment, where they made a lot of noise and smoked cigarettes out front. “He called them ‘God’s children,’ or ‘God’s sons,’” says the neighbor, a retiree named Richardwho declined to provide his last name.
Penelope Spain, a public interest attorney and CEO of Open City Advocates, which represents wards of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation, says teachers and mentors often play informal roles in the lives of committed youth. They can meet through school or church or anywhere a natural, supportive relationship exists, says Spain, whose organization is not involved in the matter. Therein lies the risk, she says. “If we put too many controls on which adults can be involved in supporting a youth, we risk shortchanging that youth. But people are quick to say that kids need to have a mentor, and they think that is as easy as finding caring adults. It’s not that easy, and it involves a very deep responsibility.”
The DYRS official says the youth’s family approved of Bontempo taking on the more formal role of foster parent, which can be a short-term therapeutic relationship but involves significant vetting and background checks. In the meantime, an informal relationship can continue. Such bonds can become messy, particularly if financial assistance is involved, says the official. “It can lead to an unhealthy cycle.” Although City Paper located the mother who made the allegation against Bontempo, she declined to be interviewed.
With Bontempo’s death, Douglas, the social worker, wonders how the ordeal will affect the youth’s life, or the lives of those around him. Though the teacher’s family members declined to comment for the record, it’s clear that people in Bontempo’s life have been affected deeply. He appears to have left a message for them, too: A YouTube tribute shows photos of him from childhood to adulthood set to Barry Manilow songs. At the end, there is a passage attributed to him, from just 10 days before his death: “I was traveling through West End. I came across this park that overlooks the city. Quiet. Peaceful. Just sat and prayed and thanked God for all he has seen me through.”
Contact Jeffrey Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.