A Salt Lake City school board member resigned Friday after he was charged with downloading child pornography as well as a felony count of sexually assaulting a boy under age 14 whom he met online.
Joél-Léhi Organista, who was elected to the board last fall and previously volunteered at Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, was charged Friday with object rape of a child. He also faces 10 felony counts of sexual exploitation of a minor.
Prosecutors said they expect more counts to be filed, too, as they conduct a full search through all of Organista’s electronic devices.
In documents filed in 3rd District Court, the Utah Attorney General’s Office notes: “There is clear and convincing evidence the defendant is a substantial danger to children in the community.” The office also asks a judge that Organista continue to be held in jail without bail.
Meanwhile, board leaders for Salt Lake City School District announced that after their calls for him to step down, Organista sent them a letter Friday resigning “effective immediately.”
“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,” President Melissa Ford said Thursday in a news conference after the accusations became public.
The 29-year-old Organista was arrested Wednesday night after officers received a tip that he had downloaded and saved files containing child pornography on a Dropbox account.
In searching his computer, according to the probable cause statement, officers reported finding at least five images and videos of exploited minors in folders labeled “Young” and “Baby Vids.” Documents say that one picture depicted an adult man sexually assaulting a young girl; in another, there was a kid around age 3.
Police also say that in searching Organista’s other devices, including his phone, they discovered a Snapchat account in which Organista had been communicating directly with children who identified themselves as between ages 12 and 17.
Organista allegedly asks for naked photos and “directs the children to do sexual acts.” The object rape count, according to court documents, comes from a conversation he had with a boy on the social media app.
Investigators say that Organista recorded some of those interactions, too, creating new pornography.
During an interview with police, documents state, Organista “admitted to having downloaded, viewed and kept the images and videos containing child pornography.”
The interactions and downloads occurred between January — when Organista took his position on the school board — and June, according to documents.
District spokesperson Yándary Chatwin said “as far as we’re aware right now,” none of the kids pictured in the images is in Salt Lake City School District.
Chatwin noted that Organista has been attending some K-12 school events since his election, as most board members do. Those have been more limited this year because of the pandemic, she said. Organista, too, has “always [been] in the presence of other board members and administrators” at those functions.
Board Vice President Nate Salazar also said that members are required to complete a background check once they are elected to office. Nothing showed up on Organista’s.
The board had no power to forcibly remove Organista from his position. But members did ban him from stepping onto any school district property for the time being.
Organista had been heralded this year as the youngest person ever elected to Salt Lake City’s school board. His District 1 precinct covers six elementary schools and two middle schools on the west side, where he grew up.
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. The district could not immediately provide the dates when he was a staffer. Chatwin said there are no human resources 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 also previously taught at the University of Utah in the ethnic studies program. 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, which also removed his profile from its website.
His arrest is the latest new to rock the Salt Lake City school board after a chaotic few years in which a superintendent was forced out, a principal was fired for driving home two drunken 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.
The board is also now looking for a replacement for Organista.