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At first, Maura Kanter thought it must have been an accident when her advanced physics teacher leaned over to check her work, and brushed against her breast.
It was 2011, and Kanter, who’s now 22, was a junior at La Jolla High School. But the touching kept happening, and then she said her teacher, Martin Teachworth, began touching other areas of her body.
“He liked to come up and surprise us, by like squeezing our thighs, tickling. Just awful. And I hate getting tickled, so I was really, really pissed off about that in general. And (he’d) stand a little too close, and lean in too close,” Kanter said. On other occasions, she said Teachworth would brush her hair back. “I started getting so uncomfortable.”
No other teacher touched her this much. No one else made her feel so uneasy. She started dreading going to class every day. When Teachworth squeezed the sides of her waist one day, she had had enough.
“‘Don’t touch me anymore. Please,’” Kanter said she told Teachworth. “He looked confused and stricken, and I said, ‘Do not touch me again.’”
Kanter was not alone in her frustration and anxiety. She is one of four women who shared their stories about Teachworth while students in his classroom from 2002 to 2013. Teachworth’s groping, they said, included grazing their chest, tickling their stomach and squeezing their hips, thighs and butt.
Most voiced their concerns to school administration at the time, but an investigation by Voice of San Diego found no records of their complaints were kept. Teachworth’s conduct was investigated on at least four separate occasions. The district removed him from the classroom just once. Some student complaints may have never left the principal’s office.
“This is the first time that I’ve heard about most of these allegations,” Teachworth wrote in an email. “I don’t know if any of those students complained to their parents or the school district. I don’t recall ever being informed of any such complaints between the 2003 and 2016 complaints.”
Teachworth, who retired in June, declined several requests for an interview, but wrote in an email, “I strongly deny having engaged in improper conduct with any student during my 38 years as a schoolteacher.”
When asked if the interactions occurred as described by the four women, Teachworth specifically denied one encounter and said the two investigations he was aware of cleared him of wrongdoing. Records show one investigation was dropped when a student who complained in 2016 could not be identified, and the district had no record of the other investigation.
Teachworth said he did touch students on occasion, but described it as incidental.
“Throughout the school day, and particularly in lab settings, I routinely interacted with students: for example, I might inadvertently contact a student while looking over his or her shoulder to assist with an assignment, or I might tap students to move them out of the way or to move to a different part of the classroom. However, throughout my career, I always did my best to respect my students’ physical space and privacy. I would never have intentionally harmed or frightened a student,” he wrote.
Kanter and others said they took their concerns to the principal at the time, Dana Shelburne, during three different school years over a 10-year period.
“This happened like once a year. Girls would finally get up the courage to go tell someone, thinking it would help and it didn’t,” Kanter said. Her meeting with Shelburne lasted “maybe 10 minutes. … It wasn’t a particularly long or meaningful meeting.”
She said Shelburne did not take notes, but promised to look into her concerns and those shared by her friends also at the meeting. She never heard from Shelburne again.
“I felt very helpless, especially after that meeting, because I was like, ‘Great. They already know. They don’t care. [Teachworth] has tenure. I guess that’s what’s more important to them,’” she said. “I was so sickened by it. I wanted him to never be able to do that to another girl, ever. … This is behavior that should never be tolerated, under any circumstances, and the fact that it has been is a stain upon that school, is a stain upon the administration.”
Shelburne, who served as principal at La Jolla High for 18 years before being reassigned to a school construction liaison job at the district office in 2013, is also newly retired. He declined to discuss specific student complaints with Voice of San Diego, but said he “consistently” followed district and union contract protocols for complaints against teachers.
“I referred student concerns to district officials for investigation and guidance,” Shelburne wrote in a text message. “I cannot comment on any conversations or directives I had or gave pertaining to this issue. … I am constrained by law from discussing specifics.”
If Shelburne followed the teacher’s union contract to the letter each time, he would have informed Teachworth of every complaint. Teachworth claims that didn’t happen.
Even if Teachworth knew, it’s unclear if district officials were alerted to every complaint.
The teacher’s union contract calls for complaints to be resolved “at the lowest possible level,” and the school district website says, “The district believes that it can resolve issues of harassment and discrimination at the school site.”
District officials said they searched district and school site files for documentation of complaints made by Kanter and others interviewed by Voice of San Diego and found none.
Nine years before Kanter complained, another student left Teachworth’s class on the heels of an encounter that left her shaken.
Loxie Gant took Teachworth’s advanced physics when she was a senior in the 2002-03 school year.
As students were working independently at their desks one day, Gant said she went to the scratch paper bin at the front of the class. As she was facing the whiteboard, Teachworth “grabbed my butt, like kind of two times. It was sort of a solid hand and a grab, and it was a one, two to my bottom.”
She was stunned.
She said she immediately told the male student sitting next to her what happened.
“My eyes were wide open. And he goes, ‘Are you OK?’ and I said, ‘No. Mr. Teachworth just grabbed my butt.’ And he was like, ‘What?! That’s so weird.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah. I know. I don’t know what to do.’ And I kind of just froze and I didn’t complete my work the rest of the period,” Gant said.
When reached by Voice of San Diego, the male student, who requested VOSD not use his name, said he recalled an instance in which Gant returned to her seat shaken by an interaction she’d had with Teachworth, but that he couldn’t say for certain whether it was something Teachworth did or something he said.
Gant said that the teacher in her next class noticed something was wrong.
“She wrote me a pass. I went straight down and sat in Mr. Shelburne’s office, the principal at the time, and told him the whole story,” said Gant. “I remember him being very defensive towards me about Mr. Teachworth. Like, I almost felt like I was like telling the story to his best friend. … He kind of kept pushing me to say that like, it wasn’t a big deal, or that it didn’t really happen. … I just remember feeling really like, kind of not believed right away, you know?”
Gant stood firm, and she said Shelburne brought in an investigator a day or two later. Gant can’t recall if the man she spoke to was a city police officer, or a member of the school district’s police force, but she said they talked alone in the conference room next to Shelburne’s office for about an hour.
School district officials said they have no record of Gant’s complaint and “No record of any investigator has been identified.”
“I just remember him being a tall, white and bald man that I talked to. … There was a gold shield on his business card,” Gant said. “It was just me and him in a room, which also made me really uncomfortable, because I was talking about my butt to like, another older man.”
During the meeting, Gant said the investigator pressed her about what happened, and questioned her intentions.
“I felt completely interrogated,” Gant said. When he asked, “‘Are you sure you are not just doing this for a grade or to get transferred out of his class?’” she said no, and explained she was already admitted to San Diego State through a guaranteed admission program.
The investigator also said something that has stuck with Gant, even 15 years later.
“He asked me: ‘Am I only reporting this because I know about all of the other reports?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’” He also asked if she’d be willing to testify in court about what happened, she recalled.
Gant said she was willing.
The investigator had her draw a diagram of the classroom, to show where the incident occurred. Gant said she was told to go home and type out a statement, again describing what happened, so she did.
“After I told Mr. Shelburne and after I talked to the investigator, I don’t remember ever going back into his classroom after that,” said Gant, who transferred to another physics class. Teachworth remained at work.
Teachworth said he recalls Gant’s complaint and the investigation that followed.
“I disputed her claims and the school district found no substantiation for them,” Teachworth wrote.
But district officials said they have no record of any of it.
Vivian Rand was taking advanced physics with Teachworth her junior year, in the fall of 2011, when she noticed “he was testing the waters with students, girls pretty much, to see what he could get away with,” Rand said.
“Because he has so much power in the classroom over your grade, it’s very hard to tell him to stop or say that’s inappropriate,” she said. But when Teachworth scraped something – possibly his stamp pad – across her face next to her ear, she said her body language sent a loud message.
“I turned around and I gave him a look that said, ‘You are never, ever to do that again to me. Don’t ever bother me again,’” she recalls. After that, Rand said Teachworth didn’t bother her the rest of the year, but others in class were not as fortunate.
“He would touch other girls. So, for instance, he would poke their bellies, or like you know, poke their stomachs, and always trying to be all cutesy, familiar. He would squeeze their sides by their hips with his hands, like before they would walk away,” Rand said. “There is no excuse for that. … Some of the girls just ignored it. Other girls tried to act or pretend or even tried to convince themselves that it’s OK, because, ‘He doesn’t mean to be harassing me.’”
The following school year, Rand said she was speaking to another student about Teachworth and later that day, she was called to the principal’s office. She was out of his class by then, so she said she felt free to speak candidly about her experience and what she witnessed.
“My senior year, he doesn’t have any power or authority over me anymore, so anything I say can’t be used against me in the class anymore,” Rand remembers thinking. “The principal at the time was Dana Shelburne,” and he took notes, she said.
Rand said she gave Shelburne Kanter’s name, too. After that meeting, she said no one from the school or district asked her about Teachworth again.
Kaitlyn McCall – “Kat” to her friends – knew advanced physics her senior year in 2012-13 would be academically challenging, but she didn’t anticipate being racked with anxiety each class period over something else.
“Pretty quickly into his class, he started coming up behind me during exams or while we were working on projects and he would get so close to me that I could feel his breath on my ear. … And he would really, creepily make cat noises in my ear. Like meowing. And if I turned around and said, ‘That’s making me uncomfortable,’ or like, ‘Could you please not do that? That is very distracting,’ he would hiss, like a cat.”
“He would harass me, sexually. I mean, he was getting into my personal space and into the space of other young women in my class. He was pulling on belt loops. Touching my hair,” McCall said. “He never stopped. It went on for the rest of the school year.”
One of her friends thought Teachworth lowered her grade when she told him to stop touching her, “So, I was very nervous to make a big deal out of anything he was doing to me,” McCall said.
“I never engaged in retaliatory behavior against any student,” Teachworth told Voice of San Diego in an email.
The touching became so normal, McCall and her friends came up with a policy to protect themselves, she said.
“’Don’t hang out in Teachworth’s class alone. Take a buddy,’” McCall remembers them saying. “He shouldn’t have been touching my hair. He shouldn’t have been breathing on it. He shouldn’t have been in that kind of space. And I felt that if he was willing to be that close and cross those boundaries with other people around, I didn’t want to see what he would do if I was alone with him.”
McCall said she didn’t meet with Shelburne, but she knew others who did, and she could tell it didn’t go well.
“I remember the girls coming out crying from the office. … If the principal was not going to do anything then, I think at least in our 17-year-old, 16-year-old minds, there wasn’t anything we could do,” McCall said. “Honestly, it was kind of devastating. I have always been a very trusting person, and I think at the time, it made me really confused about where you are supposed to go when you need help. I feel like, we are students, minors. You go to the principal or you go to teachers when you have a problem. And not only did they not help us, but the principal like, invalidated our feelings.”
”I deeply wish I had written something down at the time,” McCall said.
Gant and other students did, however, put their concerns about Teachworth in writing.
Records obtained by Voice of San Diego through a Public Records Act request show an unnamed student lodged a complaint against Teachworth using the district’s online bullying complaint form in 2016.
The student claimed Teachworth, “gives a girl (me) neck rubs. I feel intimidated by him because i have seem (sic) him do this to others and if they try to back away, he gets upset. he has done this more than tem (sic) times to me.”
District emails show Teachworth was put on paid administrative leave for a week – from Feb. 29, 2016, to March 7, 2016 – while an investigation was done. School district officials said that was the only time they removed Teachworth from the classroom during his career.
Officials tried to track the IP address of the computer from which the complaint was sent, but never located the student, which stymied the investigation.
La Jolla High Principal Chuck Podhorsky wrote an email to a colleague saying he contacted Child Protective Services, but the agency declined to take a report without a student name, and told him to refer the matter to the school district’s police department. When Podhorsky did, he was told by a school police sergeant “since there is no accuser, we can’t adequately move forward with an investigation,” Podhorsky wrote district officials on March 7, 2016. “The other student statements,” he said, “don’t seem to be pointing to any confirmation of the events reported.”
“We don’t have any witnesses, student identified or substantiating evidence,” Podhorsky wrote. “Mr. Teachworth told me there was an accusation many years ago but that that investigation was also dismissed.”
Teachworth was welcomed back to school the next day.
District officials declined to provide to Voice of San Diego the student statements referenced by Podhorsky, citing Teachworth’s “right to privacy,” but confirmed they were not from Gant, Kanter, Rand or McCall.
“The district did not find any documents relative to complaints by any of those people in responding to this request,” district spokeswoman Maureen Magee wrote.
Teachworth said he was aware of the investigation of Gant’s complaint in 2003, and the anonymous complaint in 2016. But other district emails suggest he was investigated to some extent at least two other times in his career, even if he didn’t know it.
Ten years after Gant graduated in 2003, she heard female students were still complaining about touching by Teachworth. She emailed her old Associated Student Body adviser, Joe Cavaiola, who was still working at the school in 2013, to relay her experience and continued concerns.
“How in the world is he still teaching? How does (Shelburne), knowing that he has this history, and that reports are still coming in, after over 10 years, he is still allowed to be behind closed doors with students on a daily basis?” Gant wrote on Aug. 8, 2013. “What can be done? My police report from 10 years ago has to be in a file somewhere, right? I know the statute of limitations has run out on that, but I am sure there are a lot more recently than mine that would be willing to come forward.”
According to the emails shared by Gant, the adviser forwarded Gant’s email to Shelburne and two vice principals. Shelburne replied on Aug. 11, 2013, “An active investigation is presently underway, and I will forward this to the person in HR who has been working with me on this for the last several months.”
Asked why the district did not produce any documents of the 2013 investigation or findings mentioned by Shelburne in response to public records requests for such records submitted by Voice of San Diego in 2015 and 2016, district officials said, “The district did not find any record of documented evidence that this individual engaged in inappropriate behavior.”
Other district emails show the lack of disciplinary action against Teachworth was the subject of a separate complaint made to the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing sometime in the 2015-16 school year. The agency is charged with enforcing California’s civil rights laws.
In response to a public records request, San Diego Unified produced an email mentioning the complaint, but redacted the name of the person who complained. District officials said another teacher removed from school for an unrelated incident had alleged employment discrimination and claimed other teachers, like Teachworth, were treated differently.
“The DFEH investigated and dismissed the case based on insufficient evidence,” Magee, the spokeswoman, wrote.
While working at La Jolla High, Teachworth was known on campus for his work with the science team, blood drive, archery team, fundraising and other extracurricular activities.
His inappropriate interactions with students were also noticed, according to a parent email.
A month before Teachworth was placed on leave in late February 2016, a district email shows a parent – whose name was withheld – alleged Teachworth falsely accused his or her son of cheating as retaliation for calling him an unsavory nickname.
The student “thinks the real reason that he is being punished is because he made a joke about this teacher by referring to him as Mr. Touchworth,” the parent wrote a La Jolla High counselor in an email on Jan. 29, 2016. “I understand that this is a nickname widely used by the students because of alleged incidences of improper touching by this teacher of young girls dating back to at least 2003 and continuing to this day. I have names of girls who have complained to the administration and teachers and one who has not yet complained. I can bring the information Monday if this is something the school is interested in.”
It is not clear in the emails how the complaint was ultimately resolved.
Teachworth denied ever retaliating against his students.
For retiring in June, Teachworth will receive a full year’s salary – roughly $93,000 – as part of an early retirement incentive approved by the school board. According to state pension officials, Teachworth’s pension payments after 38 years of teaching total $80,206 a year.
“The safety and wellbeing of students is a top priority for the San Diego Unified School District,” the district said in a statement. “The current administration expects all policies to be followed, especially those that pertain to the safety of students.”
In 2014-15, the California Department of Education told San Diego Unified to beef up its anti-harassment and intimidation policies following an audit. The district added new language indicating immediate intervention is needed when school personnel witness harassment, and that officials “shall ensure that district students receive age-appropriate instruction about their rights to be free from sexual harassment, the district procedure for reporting and investigating complaints of sexual harassment including with whom a complaint should be filed.”
I asked Kanter why she decided to speak up now.
“I want people to now understand what had happened and that even a school like La Jolla High, which is a very good public school, a very well-respected school in a very nice neighborhood, can deal with something like this for years and have a cover-up, you know,” she said. “It happens everywhere. It happens to any person.”