HERSHEY, Pa. (WHTM) – A Milton Hershey School houseparent has been arrested on allegations he had indecent contact with a student.
Fernando Zagaceta, 41, was charged Saturday with felony counts of indecent assault, unlawful contact with a minor, and corruption of minors, as well as a misdemeanor count of endangering the welfare of children, according to Derry Township police and court records.
Police said the charges stem from allegations involving an elementary student. According to charging documents, the 8-year-old girl told police Zagaceta touched her while she was sleeping away from her house.
Zagaceta, who was not the girl’s houseparent, admitted he was in her room while she was sleeping. He said he touched her arm or hand to see if she was asleep, the criminal complaint states.
He initially told officers he couldn’t remember if he touched the girl elsewhere or removed her blankets.
The girl reported the incident to her houseparent.
Zagaceta was arraigned and released on $50,000 unsecured bail. A preliminary hearing is scheduled July 21.
Milton Hershey School spokeswoman Lisa Scullin said the school learned of the allegations over the weekend and immediately contacted authorities.
“Such behavior is reprehensible and unacceptable, and we are taking this matter very seriously. The employee has been removed from campus and arrested. We are cooperating fully with law enforcement,” Scullin said in a statement.
“The safety of the children in our care is our highest priority, and we are focused on providing all the care and support that this student needs right now. We do not have any information that would suggest that more children in the house have been affected.”
“At Milton Hershey School we hold our employees to the highest possible standards and are committed to sustaining a welcoming and safe environment for our students,” the statement concludes.
Zagaceta has been a houseparent at the school since at least 2013, where he and his wife would have been responsible for between eight and 12 kids, according to the school’s website.
That’s after passing a slew of background checks during a months-long hiring process.
MHS spokesperson Lisa Scullin told abc27 in an email the school performs a state police criminal check, a child abuse history check, and FBI fingerprinting for all employees.
Houseparents also go through online assessments “to evaluate their motivations,” Scullin wrote, along with phone and in-person interviews, home checks, and even social media checks.
“Offenders are going to look for places where they have opportunities,” said Kristen Houser, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
She added all the research in the world will only turn up what’s reported.
“It’s why it’s so important that institutions have additional training in place,” she said, “that they are doing some environmental scans.”
Scullin said they do that, too: Houseparents go through weeks of safety training, she said, “not to mention childhood behavior, crisis intervention, relationship development, creating a safe environment for children, and many other issues related to child safety.”
“In the end,” Houser said, “it’s impossible to predict human behavior.”