A former Toppenish School District student obtained a protective order against high school teacher and coach John L. Cerna over the summer after reporting that he harassed her and sent her sexually inappropriate messages.
The student was 17 when she obtained the protective order from the Yakima County District Court. She also filed reports alleging inappropriate behavior by Cerna and his wife, Bertha, with the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, School District, and Educational Services District 105. The school district completed its investigation earlier this month and an investigation by the sheriff’s office continues.
John L. Cerna, also known as Johnny, worked as an assistant principal at Toppenish Secondary School, where Bertha Cerna worked as a teacher. Johnny Cerna is the son of District Superintendent John M. Cerna.
Johnny and Bertha Cerna have been on paid administrative leave since June 2021.
In reports to law enforcement and education officials, the girl alleged that Johnny Cerna made inappropriate sexual advances to her and that he and his wife gave her alcohol. She repeated those allegations in an interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic.
Toppenish educators remain on administrative leave as investigation continues
According to court records, the teenager was granted an initial protective order in Yakima County District Court on June 1, 2021, and then an extended protective order on June 15. The Herald-Republic does not name her because she was underage and because of the nature of the allegations. The reporting in this article is based on court records and public records reports to Educational Services District 105, in addition to interviews with the teen and a Toppenish School District employee who helped report these allegations to officials. law enforcement and education.
Born and raised in Toppenish, the student said she met Bertha Cerna in middle school and Johnny Cerna in high school. She says she started spending time with the Cernas outside of school during her junior and senior years.
At first, she and Bertha Cerna would go for walks, she said. As they continued to spend time together, Bertha Cerna invited the teen to her home and offered her alcoholic beverages, according to the girl and the report she filed with ESD 105, which was sent to OSPI.
The two were drinking while hanging out and driving around town, the teenager said. In her report to ESD 105, the teenager reported a case like this that happened on May 16. Bertha Cerna offered her a can of alcoholic seltzer that day and bought more as they drove around Yakima and the Lower Valley, the teenager said. in its report to ESD 105.
As the girl and Bertha Cerna grew closer, the girl said that Johnny Cerna became a more important figure in her life. The teenager said he was rarely around when she was at the Cerna home, but she exchanged messages on iMessage and Snapchat with the couple, which she showed to the Herald-Republic.
The Toppenish School District launched an internal investigation into two staff members, but was referred to the sheriff’s office
In her report to ESD 105 and the request for a protective order, the teenager and her parents accuse Johnny Cerna of sending her sexually inappropriate messages. These included a now-deleted Snapchat message in which Johnny Cerna told the teen he wanted to have sex with her, the teen said, and mentioned it in his protective order application filed at court.
According to court records and the report to ESD 105, the teenager also received several consecutive messages from Johnny Cerna “spamming” her phone in April when she did not answer him. She shared these messages with the Herald-Republic.
In May 2021, the teenager confided in an employee of the Toppenish school district.
The employee agreed to speak with the Herald-Republic for this story but did not want to be named because she still works in the district and feared losing her job.
The employee and student met one day on school grounds, and the employee said the girl got nervous when she realized Johnny Cerna was there. The teenager said just seeing her car in the parking lot filled her with anxiety.
It was then that the student began to tell the employee some of the things that had happened between her and Johnny Cerna. The employee was required by law to report the incidents to law enforcement and did so.
The teenager made her own reports with the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office and ESD 105 on May 26. She said she spoke to the sheriff’s office three or four more times in 2021.
She said the Cernas have not tried to contact her since she made her reports to law enforcement and education officials.
The Herald-Republic contacted Johnny and Bertha Cerna about the allegations by phone and voicemail. They separately declined to speak without an attorney but did not provide the name of their attorney or any additional comment by the publication deadline.
The teenager graduated from Toppenish High School in June 2021 and is continuing her education by studying psychology. She said the ordeal made her anxiety and insomnia worse. She said her depression got so bad that she stopped eating for a while. She’s in therapy, but now she’s worried about how many more sessions her insurance will cover, she said.
She said she no longer felt safe going to the Safeway in town because she was afraid of running into Johnny Cerna.
Although she told few people what happened, the teenager said rumors had been circulating online and across town, and more and more people were aware of her involvement. She felt like people were staring at her whenever she participated in school activities, she said.
She said people were driving past her house and shouting things.
“I want to stop thinking about it,” said the student. “I want to stop worrying about it.”
Several agencies have opened investigations into allegations of improper conduct by Cernas, although some school staff and community members have questioned why they are taking so long and why Cernas are still being paid by the district. .
The Toppenish School Board received a petition signed by more than 300 community members concerned about the investigation at its Dec. 14 meeting, Toppenish School District Superintendent’s Secretary Danelia Arellano said in an email. mail.
The petition said these community members felt “seriously concerned” about Johnny and Bertha Cerna, listing allegations that the couple provided alcohol and narcotics to high school students. He expressed frustration with what he saw as a lack of transparency on the part of the council. The petition also asked the council to terminate the couple’s employment.
The Yakima County Sheriff’s Office has opened an investigation into alleged inappropriate behavior by Johnny and Bertha Cerna. Lead investigator on the case Detective Sergio Reyna did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting updated information on the case.
Yakima’s attorney, Sarah Wixson, conducted an investigation on behalf of the Toppenish School District. It should be released this month.
The Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction opened an investigation in early July for possible violations of the code of ethics, according to agency spokeswoman Katy Payne. The agency has no estimate on when it will be completed.