Modesto High needs band leader fast

With the Modesto High School band and color guard's first competition less than two weeks away, the school is pushing to find a replacement fast after the arrest of school band teacher Lewis Wilhelm, officials said Monday.

"We want to get the right teacher for the kids right now," said Principal Hugo Ramos, who said he hopes to find an instructor with marching band experience, a degree in music and a California teaching credential.

Wilhelm, 41, is suspected of having an inappropriate relationship with a 15-year-old student. His arrest left the roughly 160-member group without a leader. Ramos visited band classes Monday to offer counseling and support services to students.

Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said it could take about two weeks for his office to decide whether to press charges against Wilhelm, who has led the band for 10 years.

Detectives arrested Wilhelm on Friday at his central Modesto home on suspicion of committing lewd and lascivious acts with a child, said Sgt. Craig Gundlach, a Modesto police spokesman. Wilhelm posted $25,000 bail over the weekend and was released from the Stanislaus County Jail.

Modesto High senior and band drum major Jared Kujawski has worked with Wilhelm for four years. He said Wilhelm often has taken a personal interest in students, wanting to know if they have problems at home or financial difficulties. Wilhelm's focus was creating a good band experience, rather than winning trophies, Kujawski said.

He described Wilhelm as a teacher who, at times, acted like one of the kids. But he said that when discipline was needed, the instructor took a no-nonsense approach.

"Once we're on the field, once we're rehearsing, that's when he's not goofing around," Kujawski said. "He had a very firm hand."

Modesto City Schools placed Wilhelm on administrative leave with pay, said Chris Flesuras Jr., the district's associate superintendent of human resources. Wilhelm could be placed on unpaid leave depending on what the district attorney decides. If charges include an educational code violation relating to certain sexual offences, a compulsory leave of absence could result, Flesuras said.

"Right now we're still in investigation mode," he said. "The police have charged him, but we're still formulating our data."

The district has interviewed the 15-year-old girl whose allegations led to Wilhelm's arrest. This week, Flesuras will interview Wilhelm, who will be able to review and respond to the girl's statements.

The school district, the Modesto Police Department and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing each conduct investigations. Flesuras said the district's inquiry will be done by the end of the week.

In the meantime, Modesto High is looking for a replacement band teacher so that competitions, such as an Oct. 6 event in Merced, can proceed according to schedule. Eleven paid coaches, who work on different aspects of the marching band and color guard performance, will lead practices.

"Our main concern is making sure the kids still have a program," said Dale Kujawski, president of the Modesto High Band & Guard Boosters. "Like anything else, he's innocent until proven guilty. We have a lot of children that really respected and loved Mr. Wilhelm."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.

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