BELMONT -- School district officials took few documented steps to protect students in their care despite warning signs that a popular coach and custodian at a Peninsula middle school had a sexual interest in female students, a review of personnel records shows.

While Andre Edwards, 55, of Hayward, is now serving a nine-month jail sentence for groping two girls at Ralston Middle School, he avoided criminal charges and significant discipline at work during a 15-year period even though there were two prior sexual misconduct complaints against him. A third accusation resulted in his retirement and arrest in 2011 from a school district job he had held since 1987.

"They missed a lot of warning signs, when you have got it right there in front of you that a child has been molested," said Terri Miller, president of Nevada-based advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation. "That's when there's serious action that needs to be taken."

Edwards continues to deny he did anything wrong, and the Belmont-Redwood Shores School District said it did everything it could to shield students. The district says school leaders remember cracking down on Edwards after the first sexual harassment incident, though they have no written documentation.

"I don't have any record specifically," said district spokesman Thomas DeLapp. "That doesn't mean it didn't happen; we just don't have a printed version of those recollections at this point."

School records show accusations against Edwards -- who teachers and parents said was a respected, well-known and well-liked running and basketball coach -- date back to 1996. That's when a female student reported he told her: "You don't know what a real man is like until you have had me," "You want me and you know it" and other sexually explicit comments.

In the wake of that incident, the district issued a report recommending Edwards and administrators create a new set of unspecified safety rules for his interactions with students and the "use of his office space."

But Edwards' personnel records, turned over to this newspaper in response to a public records request, do not contain paperwork outlining any new rules that were called for after the 1996 allegation. DeLapp said administrators remember telling Edwards it would be inappropriate to make sexual comments to students and he could lose his job if he did so. School leaders also say Ralston's principal at the time made spot checks of Edwards to make sure he was complying with the rules. But, he said, no written evidence of those measures has been found.

After this newspaper's records request, the district hired DeLapp, a $150-an-hour public relations expert, to deal with issues around Edwards' tenure, among other things.

One of the victims Edwards was convicted of groping, Roxanne Pedro, told this newspaper during a conference call involving her two attorneys that Edwards molested her in May 2001, when she was 12. Edwards and she were in his office when he pulled down her pants and touched her, she said.

She immediately reported the abuse, but Pedro believes police and district officials didn't take her seriously.

"They just keep asking me, are you sure this happened?" Pedro said, referring to school officials.

Saying the district could have done more to protect her, Pedro recently filed a claim against the Belmont-Redwood Shores School District, the initial step to filing a lawsuit.

Current Belmont police Chief Daniel DeSmidt, who was a member of the force but wasn't on the case at the time, said he's confident his department took the report seriously.

"We spent a lot of resources on this case, a lot of time and energy, that wouldn't have been invested if people didn't have reason to believe it was worth looking at," he said.

Belmont detectives forwarded their findings to San Mateo County prosecutors who decided -- after Edwards denied the allegations -- that it was a he-said, she-said case that wasn't enough to win a conviction.

The decision was also influenced by another student's claim that Pedro invented the accusation, but that claim has since been shown to be potentially false, Chief Deputy District Attorney Karen Guidotti said.

After the case didn't result in criminal charges, Edwards returned to work.

The district's response to Pedro's abuse allegations, according to Edwards' personnel records, was to prohibit him from being alone with students in his office and to move his office to a spot on campus with higher visibility.

Edwards' office remained in a highly visible area nine years later when the second abuse victim told officials he groped her as she visited him there in November 2010.

The investigation into those allegations prompted a new look at Pedro's case as well, and in April 2011 Edwards pleaded no contest in San Mateo County Superior Court, which has the same consequences as being found guilty, to charges stemming from the accusations leveled by Pedro and the girl in 2010. Under the terms of his plea bargain, Edwards will not have to register as a sex offender when released from jail.

In a jailhouse interview, Edwards said he's innocent of the charges. When asked why he took the plea deal, he made the gesture for money with his fingers but refused to explain.

"I can't elaborate. You have to ask my lawyer," Edwards said from behind a glass barrier in a San Mateo County jail visiting room.

Defense attorney Eric Hove didn't respond to a request for comment.

Assistant Superintendent Nellie Hungerford said the 3,800-student district did everything in its power to protect students. She said the sexual harassment allegation in 1996 came from a student who declined to put her name on a formal complaint and whose claims were not backed by other evidence.

"If you're not convicted, we can't do anything about it, if you don't have absolute proof," Hungerford said. "So therefore what you do is you try to find as much safety for the children as you possibly can."

Since the Edwards' case, the district has not put into place any new rules or procedures for dealing with employees who face multiple allegations of sexual impropriety with students.

The district will offer expanded training on teachers' responsibilities to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement officials.

However, an attorney on the advisory board of Nevada-based advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation disagreed with Hungerford. Mary Jo McGrath said school districts can take action against workers even if the police don't.

"Districts are not looking for criminal behavior; they are looking for boundary violations, which don't even show up in the police handbook," she said, referring to such behavior as standing too close to students or seeking to befriend them. "They do form sufficient basis for discipline within the school system."

Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.