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A larger picture of Martin Teachworth’s classroom behavior at La Jolla High School is emerging as more students share their experiences.
Teachworth, a longtime physics teacher who retired in June, has denied engaging in “improper conduct with any student during my 38 years as a schoolteacher.”
But it’s clear his actions affected female students taking his class for years. As Voice of San Diego reported last month, some students took their concerns about unwanted touching by Teachworth to the school administration, and came away frustrated that more wasn’t done.
Two more former students of Teachworth’s have since come forward to say his behavior in the classroom made them uncomfortable, and that they felt at a loss as to how to respond. One said she didn’t confront Teachworth or tell the principal, but did tell her parents.
Teachworth was “always kind of in my personal bubble. … He figured he could get away with it because he did for so long,” said Emily Mandel. Mandel, now 23, was a junior in advanced physics during the 2010-2011 school year when she felt Teachworth was too close, too often.
“He would come up behind me and grab by my sides, upper hips and sides, and tickle me,” Mandel said. “Sometimes he would play it off like, ‘Oh, I’m so silly,’ but it was never asked for. I was too shy to say anything. … I know I felt incredibly powerless, because you are 16 years old in class.”
Mandel said the impact of Teachworth’s actions lingered.
“It definitely gave me horrendous anxiety. I would get really bad stomachaches and would run out of the class,” when it was over, she said.
Though her shyness stopped her from confronting Teachworth or reporting him to the administration, she said he did something one day that upset her so much, she told her parents.
“The time he touched my breast, we were doing soldering,” Mandel said. “He came up behind me and tried to play it off like it was an accident. … I knew it wasn’t.”
But her parents “said it was probably an accident.” Mandel figured others would dismiss her concerns too, she said.
When Voice of San Diego’s report about Teachworth was published, Mandel said she learned school and district officials were aware of Teachworth’s touching, and felt they didn’t do enough to make it stop.
“As soon as I saw the article, I was like, ‘Gosh. This was more widespread than any of us realized,’” Mandel said. “There needed to be more action to get him out of the school if there were so many reports of him harming children.”
Junyi Zheng, a 2014 La Jolla High graduate, took Teachworth’s advanced physics class her senior year and said the experience has “just kind of been there bothering me for a while.”
“He was too touchy, not specifically with me but other classmates. … I would see things,”
Zheng said. “To move us out of the way, he would grab us by the hips.”
She said Teachworth occasionally used a spray bottle to spray her and other students in the face and chest if they were late to class. Comments he made were also off-putting.
“He’d like compliment my friend on her top and it would be a really colorful top, or her chest was showing more, and she had a bigger chest than a lot of us,” Zheng said. “He would say things that other teachers wouldn’t say.”
But future ambitions and college planning weighed heavily on their minds. Teachworth had control over their grade, and several students said they were fearful he would punish them academically if they told him to stop or reported him.
For years, Teachworth was the only teacher on campus who taught advanced physics courses. If students wanted out of the class, they’d have to transfer to a regular physics course, or another science course entirely. For seniors already admitted to a university, such a move could jeopardize their admission. At least one student said school officials told her as much after she reported that Teachworth grabbed her butt twice in succession in 2003. She transferred anyway.
Zheng described similar fears over reporting Teachworth’s behavior.
“Should I tell my parents? I know if I tell my parents, they’d freak out and then what would they do? Would they go to the school board, or just my principal or would I have to drop the class, and how would that affect my class schedule?” Zheng recalls thinking. “You know, obviously looking back, that would have been a trivial thing, but in the moment, that’s all you know as a high school student.”
Zheng said she wishes the school held assemblies to tell students about what to do when teachers are inappropriate. Knowing who to report to could have made a difference.
“It makes me sad that he’s probably acted this way towards hundreds of students,” Zheng said.
Though Mandel and Zheng didn’t report their concerns to school or district administrators, other female students did, and came away disappointed with the outcome. They said the district failed to protect them and other students from Teachworth’s advances.
San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten declined to discuss how La Jolla High student complaints about Teachworth were handled over the years.
“The superintendent has nothing to add beyond what the district has provided to you on this matter,” spokeswoman Maureen Magee wrote in an email.
The day Voice of San Diego’s first account of Teachworth’s behavior ran, San Diego Unified school board member John Lee Evans tweeted, “Sexual harassment not okay in government, not okay in entertainment or business. And not okay in schools!!” Evans did not respond to a call or email seeking an interview.
Three women told Voice of San Diego that they voiced their concerns about touching by Teachworth to then-principal Dana Shelburne, but the school district claims to have no record of their complaints in the district office, school site or school police files.
Records and interviews reveal Teachworth was investigated to some extent on at least four occasions: in 2003, 2013 and twice in 2016.
San Diego Unified officials said the only time Teachworth was taken out of the classroom was for a week in 2016, while an anonymous student complaint about neck rubs by Teachworth was investigated. District emails show when the student couldn’t be located, the probe was dropped and Teachworth was welcomed back to class.
Asked about Mandel and Zheng’s accounts, Teachworth wrote in an email that he has “nothing further to add” to his previous statement denying any improper conduct toward students.