A Salt Lake City school board member has been arrested for allegedly downloading images of child pornography and engaging in explicit conversations online with kids as young as 12 years old.
Joél-Léhi Organista, a newly elected member to the board who previously worked at Horizonte High, was booked into jail late Wednesday night. He is being held on suspicion of eight felony counts of sexual exploitation of a minor.
When the accusations became public Thursday, the board’s leadership called on Organista to resign.
“As individual school board members whose duty it is to protect and enrich the lives of children, we condemn the crimes of which Mr. Organista has been accused,” said President Melissa Ford in a news conference. “To engage in any such conduct or to exploit or endanger any child is indefensible.”
Organista, 29, has not yet been formally charged. But according to a probable cause statement for his arrest, police say he admitted to some of the crimes.
“For our board, that’s enough,” said spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin. “There’s not a gray area.”
Ford said Organista has been asked to step down by Friday. He is currently being held without bail, so it’s unclear if he will be able to respond by then. Police have asked to a judge to keep Organista in jail because “has access to young children in his current position of trust involving grades K-12.”
Chatwin said “as far as we’re aware right now” none of the kids pictured in the images are in Salt Lake City School District. But resources will be provided for those who need them, including counseling, and anyone who may have been impacted is asked to come forward to a trusted adult.
Investigators say they received a tip that Organista had downloaded and saved files containing child pornography on a Dropbox account.
In searching his computer, according to the probable cause statement from the Utah Attorney General’s Office, officers reported finding at least five images of exploited minors. Documents say that one of the pictures depicted an adult man sexually assaulting a young girl.
Police also say that in searching Organista’s other devices, including his phone, they discovered a Snapchat account where Organista had been communicating directly with children who identified themselves as between the ages of 12 and 17. In the conversations, Organista allegedly asks for naked photos and “directs the children to do sexual acts.”
The interactions and downloads occurred between January — when Organista took his position on the Salt Lake City School District’s board of education — and the start of this month, according to documents.
During an interview with police, documents state, Organista “admitted to having downloaded, viewed and kept the images and videos containing child pornography.”
Chatwin noted, as well, that none of the devices or email addresses used by Organista were connected to the district.
Organista had been heralded this year as the youngest person to ever have been elected to Salt Lake City’s school board. His precinct in District 1 covers six elementary schools and two middle schools on the west side of the state capital where he grew up.
Ford noted that the board leadership has no power to remove Organista from his position. If he chooses to remain in his seat for his full four-year term, the most that other members could do is vote to censure him. Only the conviction on a felony charge would lead to his removal from public office.
But Ford noted that Organista has been banned from stepping on any school district property.
He has been attending some school events since his election, Chatwin noted, as most board members do. Those have been more limited this year because of the pandemic, though, she said. Organista, too, has “always [been] in the presence of other board members and administrators” at those functions.
Board members, noted Vice President Nate Salazar, are required to complete a background check once they are elected to office. Nothing showed up on Organista’s.
According to his website from when he was running for election, Organista was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States when he was a kid. His parents enrolled him in Salt Lake City School District, and he later graduated from West High.
His page notes that he taught health at Horizonte High. The district could not immediately provide the dates when he was a staff member.
Chatwin said there are no HR records of his employment. That makes it likely that he got the position at the school by volunteering through an education nonprofit.
His LinkedIn page notes that he also served as a mentor at West High in the district from May 2015 to June 2016.
Organista was also previously an instructor at the University of Utah in the Ethnic Studies Department. And he has served as a youth leader for the national League of United Latin American Citizens since 2018. He has been suspended from that role by the organization.
His arrest is the latest to rock the Salt Lake City school board after a chaotic few years, where the superintendent was forced out, a principal was fired for driving home two drunk students, parents protested over the district starting the year entirely online with the pandemic and infighting among members over that decision led to vulgar outbursts.
“I haven’t seen anything like this before and I’ve done this for 32 years,” Interim Superintendent Larry Madden noted.