Eileen Sofa at home with her son. Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Warning: This piece contains graphic descriptions of a sexual assault.

On the morning of Aug. 3, 2016, with summer school classes in session, a teacher’s aide at Lincoln High school walked into the bathroom and saw what looked like one boy sexually assaulting another.

The teacher’s aide — the single eyewitness to the incident — later told police he saw both boys with their pants down, the suspect “right on (the victim), touching him skin to skin.”

The victim was a 17-year student with cerebral palsy and a condition that requires a tube in his head so excess fluid can escape. He can’t speak more than a few simple words at time and needs help with most daily tasks. (VOSD is withholding the names of the students involved because they were both minors at the time of the incident.)

According to a police report obtained by Voice of San Diego, a day passed before an officer from San Diego Unified’s school police department conducted interviews and completed his report on the incident.

In an interview with the school police officer, the 15-year-old suspect, with his mother by his side, told the officer he knew the difference between right and wrong. Helping someone is right, he said. What he’d done to the other student in the bathroom was wrong.

“I went to the bathroom with (the other student) and I put my thing in him. I put my thing in his butt. I don’t know why I did it. I have never done anything like this before. I think it lasted for like two minutes,” the suspect said.

He made a similar admission to a Lincoln staff member, though he told her it was an accident.

On Aug. 5, two days after the incident, a detective from San Diego Police Department’s sex crimes unit reviewed the case. Despite the suspect’s admission, as well as statements from two witnesses, the detective recommended the case be cancelled for lack of evidence.

“Neither the victim or the suspect was able to articulate a crime in their preliminary statements. Both the victim and the suspect have a severe developmental disability… This case is being Cancelled as unfounded because no crime has been articulated at this point,” wrote Michael Weaver, detective from the San Diego Police Department.

Eileen Sofa, the mother of the victim, said neither police nor staff at Lincoln High told her that the suspect admitted to sexually assaulting her son. Instead, she said they told her that staff had walked in just before an assault occurred. She claims she didn’t hear otherwise until a year later.

By the time the details included in the police report surfaced, a teacher who had tried to bring the information to light had died from an apparent suicide.

That teacher believed the school was misdiagnosing students and placing them in special-needs settings that weren’t right for them. That included the suspect, who despite a long history of violent and sexual offenses was placed in a class with the school’s most vulnerable students.

Police declined to charge the boy with a crime and he was back at Lincoln weeks later.

School leaders did not expel him from Lincoln High. A discrepancy had emerged between the way school staff initially documented the incident and how they described it a month later, with school back in session. The encounter had been degraded from a sexual assault to something less serious.

Jamie Guevarra, the boys’ special education teacher, wrote one day after the incident she was “informed by [a] staff member that [the] suspect was ‘attempting’ to have sex with [the] victim in the boy’s bathroom.”

Sexual misconduct — defined by the district as “attempting to commit or committing a sexual assault or battery” — is one of five offenses for which school principals must recommend students be expelled.

Nearly a month later, however, the school’s vice principal documented the incident differently. She labeled the offense an “obscene act.” The school does not expel students for that.

In the end, a student at Lincoln High who told police he’d assaulted a boy with special needs was suspended for five days. The suspect soon left Lincoln and transferred to a high school in another school district in San Diego.

For the rest of that school year, the teacher who tried to blow the whistle on the suspected rape would turn to colleagues, law enforcement officers and the superintendent in an attempt to raise alarms about problems he saw at Lincoln.

He didn’t live to see the story made public.

What Set Him Off

Of all schools in San Diego Unified, none in the past decade have seen more high-profile explosions of violence than Lincoln High. Academically, no schools have struggled as visibly, causing district leaders to restructure it over and again in search of a solution.

If the district’s top leaders recognize the problems, in public they’ve offered only optimism.

At an October 2016 school board meeting, just weeks after the suspected sexual assault occurred, Superintendent Cindy Marten predicted a turnaround for Lincoln High, saying it was the one school where the public could expect great things to happen that year.

The school year did not match Marten’s prediction. An academic program that two years earlier district leaders hailed as a way to reinvigorate the school left the majority of students in the program with failing grades. In May, after almost a year with no permanent principal in place, students walked out of class to protest the school’s lack of representative leadership.

Throughout the turmoil, one teacher, Nathan Page, grew increasingly convinced school leaders were failing its special education students — misdiagnosing their disabilities and placing them in academic settings inappropriate to their needs.

By the accounts of his friends, colleagues and family, Page was deeply passionate about students, perhaps to a fault. His mother, Julie Page, said as a child her son had a prodigious memory for snakes and lizards. As an adult, he applied his intellect to Christian theology. When Mormons knocked on his door to proselytize, he’d invite them in and debate for hours, his mom said.

Sofa, the victim’s mother, recalls how one day her son left his backpack at school. Instead of setting it aside for him to pick up the next day, Page drove to Sofa’s house and delivered the backpack that day.

“That was just the kind of guy he was,” said Sofa.

In 2016, his third year at Lincoln, Page began to clash with school leaders and became increasingly vocal about how Lincoln was managed.

Liz Gekakis, his colleague and union rep, said Page believed one student in particular had been placed in an environment that was too restrictive and that he was capable of a more advanced setting. When school leaders disregarded his advice, he was obstinate.

“That was the thing that set him off,” said Gekakis.

One teacher at Lincoln, Cody Szohr, knows the student Page believed had been misdiagnosed. After Page left, Szohr started working closely with the student as he began taking general education classes alongside classmates without disabilities.

Szohr backs up Page’s assessment that the student was capable of succeeding in a mainstream setting.

“(The student) is one of the least of my worries in my classes. He’s much smarter than people have let on. He definitely is in the upper half of all the students I worked with, in terms of being able to understand the material,” Szohr said.

At the time he worked there, however, Page believed administrators ignored his advice.

Friends noticed he had trouble coping emotionally with stressors at Lincoln. Janitors would walk past his classroom in the afternoon and see him crying, colleagues and friends said.

In January 2017, Page went out on stress leave. When he returned to school, his problems continued.

By mid-March, Page had come to fear the student suspected of committing an assault at Lincoln had transferred to another school district and assaulted additional students there. (A spokesman for that school district confirmed the student had transferred in September, shortly after the incident at Lincoln, but said the district has no record he was involved in any assaults after he arrived).

Meanwhile, Page’s behavior at school grew increasingly erratic. At one point, he followed vice principal Myeshia Whigham — the staff member with whom he clashed most often — into the campus courtyard and yelled that she was discriminating against students and that he would be suing her.

For this and other conduct, Whigham wrote Page a letter of reprimand. It didn’t silence him.

In early April, Page sent an email to Superintendent Marten — copying Whigham and a former Lincoln staff member — in which he said Lincoln’s leaders failed to protect students after they learned about the suspected sexual assault.

The following day, he sent a mass email to nearly two dozen staff members that said: “Anybody who respects crooks that are involved in any way in covering up rapes is despicable (!).”

That same month, Page took leave from Lincoln for the second time in a year. He would never return.

In July, several months later, Page went to the San Diego police to tell the detective what he knew of the suspected sexual assault at Lincoln. He told detective Weaver he worried the student involved in the case at Lincoln had gone on to commit additional sexual assaults in a different school district.

“My only concern is that the perpetrator gets help, and that there are no more future victims. I just want to make sure you have all the information that I can help you with,” he told Weaver.

But the police report also indicates Weaver had doubts even before interviewing Page.

“Prior to the interview, I observed that Page had a strong body odor, and a rapid, sometimes frenetic speech that I know are often associated with both persons under the influence of narcotics, as well as those suffering from mental disorders such as schizophrenia,” Weaver wrote.

In the end, Weaver reached the same conclusion he had before speaking with Page.

“Based on the above statement by Page, there was no new evidence in this matter to re-open the case, and it will remain closed,” Weaver wrote.

Nathan Page’s photo from the 2016-2017 school year, his last at Lincoln High.
Nathan Page’s photo from the 2016-2017 school year, his last at Lincoln High.

How Lincoln Handled the Incident

If the student did sexually assault his classmate in the bathroom at Lincoln High, it wouldn’t have been the first violent or sexual crime he committed against another student.

Discipline records show he had been reprimanded for sexual or violent offenses at least 11 different times since he was 11 years old.

In 2013, when he was a student at Gompers Preparatory Academy, he was suspended for sexual harassment after making inappropriate comments and gestures to a female intern. He was suspended again a month later for writing notes to girls that contained sexual comments.

The following year, after he transferred to Millennial Tech Middle School, he put his hand on a girl’s hip and asked for a kiss. Again he was suspended for sexual harassment. A month later, he was suspended for sexually harassing a girl he tried to hug and kiss. In 2015, he grabbed a student and pushed him into the wall and got suspended for attempting to injure the student.

Had this behavior ended in middle school, it would have been easier for Lincoln’s staff to miss. But he also exhibited violent behavior at Lincoln.

In 2016, months before he was accused of sexual assault, he was caught with a box cutter at school — an expellable offense. But school staff determined that bringing the box cutter was a manifestation of the lack of impulse control brought on by his intellectual disability and did not attempt to expel him. A month later, he was suspended for slapping a girl.

MaryLynn Gonzalez, a special education teacher’s aide at Lincoln, said that neither she nor her colleagues were made aware of the suspect’s history — even though teachers and aides supervised students in potentially compromising situations, like locker rooms and community outings.

Gonzalez said administrators advised aides to look at the educational goals written in students’ special education plans, but nothing more. Educational goals would not contain a student’s history of offenses.

“We had no idea. Believe me, had I known I would have been watching him like a hawk,” Gonzalez said.

Still, the student remained in a setting for students with moderate to severe disabilities, one of the most structured and restrictive academic environments. As compared to students with mild disabilities, whose programs are typically geared more toward academic progress, the program for those with moderate-to-severe disabilities is focused more on basic life skills that can prepare students to live independently.

It also serves some of the most vulnerable students, such as those who can’t communicate or care for themselves.

Special education attorney Matthew Storey said moderate-to-severe settings are not appropriate for students with histories of sexually assaultive behavior, especially when they’re surrounded by more vulnerable peers.

At a minimum, Storey said, a student with these traits should be placed in a day treatment program like Riley/New Dawn, which offers intensive therapy and supervision — possibly even a residential setting.

“At the very least, he should have had a (one-on-one) aide with him at all times,” he said.

Storey said cases where nonverbal students are sexually assaulted by other students with disabilities are not altogether uncommon. He estimates he sees one or two similar cases a year. Typically, however, there is little evidence on which to build a case.

“These accusations come around all the time, but if you have a nonverbal student, how do you prove them?” he said.

What makes the case at Lincoln unique, he said, is the eyewitness and a confession by the suspect.

Mysterious to Storey is the discrepancy between how school staff initially described the incident and how the vice principal labeled it a month later.

The day after the incident, special education teacher Jamie Guevarra filled out a suspected child abuse report in which she wrote that she was informed by another staff member the suspect had been “attempting to have sex” with the victim in the boys bathroom. Attempting to commit or committing a sexual assault or battery is one of five reasons for which principals must recommend expulsion.

But the following month, with school back in session, vice principal Whigham described the incident as an “obscene act,” a less serious offense for which students aren’t automatically recommended for expulsion.

Asked to explain the discrepancy, a district spokesperson said the district does not comment on pending litigation. Sofa and her son filed a claim with the school district in November, which the district rejected. They plan to soon file a lawsuit for negligence.

Regardless of why Whigham described the incident the way she did, her approach offered one distinct advantage: It saved Lincoln staff a major bureaucratic headache that may have kept the student at the school longer.

Had Whigham called the incident a sexual assault, she would have been required to recommend the student for expulsion. That would have temporarily locked the student into place — preventing him from enrolling in another district school and possibly another school district — until a determination was made on whether to expel him. (Students in this situation could also attend an alternative school that accepts students awaiting expulsion decisions, but that placement is typically temporary).

The expulsion process isn’t a quick one. Before schools can expel students with disabilities, members of a student’s special education team must determine the behavior was not caused by the disability.

Even then, expulsion isn’t certain. The decision would have to be approved by a three-member panel as well as the school board. And if students appeal the decision, the process can be further drawn out, lasting weeks or months. If either the three-member panel or the school board reject the recommendation to expel, the student could wind up back at the school where he started.

Calling the incident an “obscene act,” however, allowed the suspect to transfer schools while also sidestepping a potentially protracted expulsion process.

But it also made it less likely whatever school district he transferred to would be aware of the full context of the incident or the details included in the police report. In that case, educators wouldn’t know what type of setting was appropriate to both support him and protect other students.

“It would mean the student the district has on paper doesn’t match who the student is in reality,” Storey said.

‘A Lot of People Dropped the Ball’

The police report for the suspected sexual assault includes a statement from Lincoln’s then-acting principal who said the suspect admitted to her he had “accidentally put his thing into (the victim).”

It includes a statement from Calvin Smith, the teacher’s aide who told the officer he walked into the bathroom to see the suspect right behind the victim, pants down, “touching him skin to skin.”

It includes a confession the suspect made to the San Diego school police officer.

What the report doesn’t include is a description of the specific facts officers relayed to the victim’s mother, Eileen Sofa, or an indication that they informed her of statements the witnesses and suspect made in interviews.

There’s a simple reason for this, according to Sofa: Nobody ever told her exactly what witnesses said.

The narrative the school police officer wrote a day after the incident reads: “The (suspected victim’s) mother and father arrived to the school a short time later. I advised them of the incident and let them know we were uncertain exactly what happened and to what extent if anything did happen.”

After hearing this, Sofa did not ask that her son be tested for sexual assault, an invasive procedure in which victims are prodded, swabbed, and photographed. Sofa did not pressure police for a forensic interview, during which her son would have been interviewed by professionals trained to solicit objective information from children without coaching or leading them.

The report says that Sofa told police she didn’t see any injuries to her son and that, for the most part, he was acting normal. This rationale was cited by San Diego police detective Weaver weeks after the incident as reason why the case should be cancelled, meaning he determined there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed.

And that’s where the case stood, for more than a year. The suspect transferred to another school district and the victim remained at Lincoln High.

The following October, after reporters began asking questions about the case, San Diego police officers reached out to Sofa and asked to meet again with her. The officers told Sofa they had contacted her because questions had come up they needed answered. They began the interview by asking Sofa what she knew about the case.

“One of the staff told me (my son) went to the bathroom… And every time (my son) goes to the bathroom, for some reason (the suspect) wants to go to the bathroom. And when he (the staff member) walked in (the suspect) was standing behind (my son) with his pants down. He (the staff member) didn’t see anything, but he took it to the teacher,” Sofa told police, according to the report.

Sofa’s account does not match what the witnesses or suspect had previously told police, but the officers did not correct her understanding. They offered to have a forensic interview performed on her son, but also gave her a letter to sign if she did not want to move forward with the case or be contacted again by police.

“I will just leave it at that,” Sofa told police. “The kid is gone, he is at another school now.”

Sofa signed the letter and gave it to the officer.

“I am recommending this investigation be inactivated as the victim (guardian/conservator) is uncooperative and does not want to continue the investigation at this time,” the officer’s report reads.

Gonzalez, the teacher’s aide who worked with both students, said she and other Lincoln staff members did not realize Sofa had not been given all the facts until after NBC 7 reported on the incident in November. At the time, Sofa said she felt betrayed by the school for lying to her.

“We had no idea she didn’t know,” Gonzalez said. “We thought it was out in the open what (the suspect) had done to her son.”

Marlea Dell’Anno, a former prosecutor in the City Attorney’s office who is now representing Sofa and her son, said both school staff and investigators made mistakes from the very beginning.

“A lot of people dropped the ball on this case, starting with the fact they did not make a full and accurate disclosure to the mother. So everything after that was essentially built on a lie. What they withheld from her was not inconsequential information. They withheld material information which caused her to make decisions which she wouldn’t have made had she known the truth,” Dell’Anno said.

Had Sofa been given the details of what the suspect stated in interviews or what the witness had seen, Dell’Anno said, she could have made a more informed decision on whether to ask for an examination.

On behalf of Sofa and her son, Dell’Anno filed a claim with the school district in November alleging police and school staff withheld material facts from Sofa and failed to protect her son. San Diego Unified rejected the claim in December. In the coming weeks, Dell’Anno plans to file a lawsuit against the district for negligence.

According to the claim filed in November, Sofa went in person to the San Diego Police Department to request copies of the police reports, but was denied. Police also refused to provide audio recordings of statements she made to officers.

“Any parent out there, if they were in the same position, it would make them crazy. How do you keep secrets about that kind of thing from a child’s own mother?” Dell’Anno said.

She said it was especially concerning that SDPD and the district disregarded Page’s overtures.

“To care so much that you’re basically pleading with people, ‘please listen to me,’ and he gets called crazy and a drug addict, none of which is true,” she said. “I think it was an irresponsible way to handle that information. If somebody took the time to look into it, they would have gotten the information that they needed.”

San Diego Police Department spokesman Scott Wahl said the department could not comment because the case is pending litigation. Shortly before this story published, an officer from SDPD’s internal affairs division, which is looking into the case, said the matter has been forwarded to the district attorney for review.

‘There’s No Closure’

The 2016-2017 school year was a tumultuous one for both Nathan Page and his mom Julie Page. Her son had always been the rock, Julie said, the one who friends and family members turned to when they needed advice. But Lincoln High seemed to change him.

She knew her son was upset since early in the school year, when he came to believe educators were misdiagnosing students with disabilities. But it wasn’t until he took stress leave mid-year that Julie noticed he wasn’t himself.

Her son had never been diagnosed with a mental illness, Julie said, but friends and members of his church worried about his stability.

Julie noticed her son seemed paranoid. Some days he was down — others he was full of frantic energy. He sent long, impassioned messages to friends and family in the early morning hours. Those who knew him well began to question his grasp on reality. Some began to back away.

Nathan believed speaking out against problems he saw at Lincoln made him a target for administrators who wanted him out of the school, Julie said.

Some of his colleagues now say that part, at least, wasn’t paranoia.

Liz Gekakis, who retired last year, describes Lincoln as a place where administrators intimidated and micromanaged certain teachers.

“He was pushed to the edge. (Administrators) hovered over him, went into his classroom and called him into the office. They wrote him up. They pulled assistance away from him. It’s the same thing they do to newer teachers who are less confident and more vulnerable,” Gekakis said.

“They singled him out, absolutely,” said Gonzalez, who worked with Page as a teacher’s aide. Gonzalez said students adored Page and would yell his name when he entered the room.

“They were on him for every little thing. I believe it was because he was a voice for the kids. He raised issues they ignored for years. I was in tears one day I felt so bad for him, and I’m not a crier,” she said.

In April 2017, Nathan left Lincoln and remained on leave for the rest of the year. With a loss in income, he sold his house. He moved in with his mom at her home in Temecula.

Around August, however, the picture began to brighten.

Nathan decided to look for a new job and received a favorable recommendation from a former supervisor. That September, he was hired as a special education teacher at a school in Lake Elsinore. Julie would overhear her son talking to friends on the phone, laughing like he used to.

“He was back. Nathan was back,” said Julie.

But just as Nathan was about to start work, his mom noticed he seemed particularly concerned about heading back to the classroom.

“I don’t know why. Maybe it was lack of confidence after everything that happened. He seemed nervous, but he was still laughing with friends. He seemed OK,” she said.

After the second day at school, Nathan got in his car and headed up to a mountain road, near the candy store he loved to visit as a kid, and drove his car off the road.

His Toyota Corolla rolled 100 feet downhill, according to a news report from that day. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and was ejected from the car. Paramedics rushed him to the hospital, where he died at 9:45 p.m.

Nathan’s death wasn’t initially determined to be a suicide, but investigators found no skid marks. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, which Julie said he always wore. And he had no reason to be up on the mountain road.

“If it was anywhere else, I could believe it was an accident,” Julie said.

Since his death, Julie has tried to hang on to the good memories she has of her son. She exercises and spends time with her two other children. If there’s anything positive that came of his death, she said, it’s that family members have returned to church, looking to reconnect with their faith. But that doesn’t mean she’s made peace with what happened.

“There’s no closure. Not when it’s your son,” Julie said.

She tells his story because she knows it was important to her son.

“That was his one goal – justice for the student who was hurt. He told me that many times. If the truth would have come out when he was still alive, he would still be here with us,” she said.

After he died, the school in Lake Elsinore where Nathan had started teaching reached out to his mom to offer condolences. The only thing Julie said she received from Lincoln or San Diego Unified was a letter saying her son had been overpaid in his final check and she needed to repay the balance.

She tore it up.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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