Vista High School. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

For years, San Diego County’s public schools have quietly dealt with sexual harassment and misconduct complaints lodged against employees by colleagues, students or their families.

Many claims never became public, even after district officials determined they were credible and reprimanded or fired employees. Sometimes districts brokered deals to get an employee to resign, paying them thousands of dollars not to work for weeks or months at a time.

Occasionally, districts would notify public school employees they were under investigation for sexual misconduct and they would leave quickly and without extra pay, district records show.

These are the early findings of a Voice of San Diego investigation into school district sexual misconduct cases. VOSD is working to obtain complaints, investigation reports, findings and settlements from schools throughout the region using the state’s open records laws.

The request is being fought by some school districts and their attorneys, who argue the identity of employees reprimanded for wrongdoing should remain secret. Other school districts want to release the records, but must battle their own teachers and a union attorney in court before doing so.

Public schools are notoriously tight lipped about personnel matters and decisions. Sometimes employees disappear from the job without explanation or get reassigned to another department. More often, though, employees are reprimanded privately — sometimes repeatedly — as troubling behavior persists for years.

Our goal is to assess how many credible sexual harassment and misconduct cases involving public school employees have arisen in the region’s schools, as well as how complaints are addressed and whether there are gaps in the system that’s supposed to keep students and employees safe and free from harassment.

The La Mesa-Spring Valley School District is seeking to keep all employee identities private, including a case where a 15-year special education teacher sent inappropriate messages to a male student on Facebook and tried to meet up with him.

Redacted district records show the teacher resigned in 2015 after the student’s parents discovered the messages and contacted the school and law enforcement. According to the records, the teacher complimented the student’s looks and said, “you matter to me, i care about you and how you are doing, i want to be there for you.”

The teacher also asked what part of town the student lived in, invited him to go on a walk, to a movie and to an Aztec football game. The teacher and student planned to watch Insidious and the Saw movies on Netflix alone, before the messages were discovered by the student’s parents.

The messages turned more sexual when the student’s account asked the teacher about touching each other and the size of the teacher’s genitals.

“Whn we meet would u show me tho,” the student account asked. The teacher replied, “I dunno Good night.” The student’s parents then revealed they were messaging on their son’s account that night and reported him to officials.

When questioned by district staff, the teacher initially claimed his Facebook was hacked, but later said the messages were his, that the student was depressed and he wanted to support him.

When the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, Tina Sardina, suggested the messages looked like the pedophiles that try to lure their victims on TV, the teacher agreed.

“I see that now. It was a stupid mistake,” he told Sardina, according to her interview notes. Sardina asked if the teacher would be willing to transfer schools. She then followed him home to get his school laptop.

Under a settlement agreement with the district, the teacher remained on paid leave for four months before resigning in November 2015. Since the teacher’s name was withheld, it is unclear how much the teacher was paid, if his teaching credential was impacted or if he is currently teaching elsewhere.

In another case, an unnamed La Mesa special education teacher’s aide was investigated for making suggestive remarks to fellow employees about his homemade meatballs and beef jerky in August and September.

While planning the menu for a baby shower, the aide reportedly told fellow employees, “My balls are better than her balls.”

The following month, the same aide offered beef jerky to his colleagues, asking, according to the suspension charges written by the district, “Want to try my meat? It will be good in your mouth”; “Is my meat good in your mouth”; and “How was it having a piece of my meat in your mouth?”

The district’s human resources director recommended the board suspend the employee for five days without pay on Oct. 31. In response, records show, the aide told district officials he was “simply looking for feedback” about his homemade jerky, which he makes to sell and donate to a new nonprofit he’s creating that benefits children with cancer.

Elsewhere, the region’s largest district, San Diego Unified, and some smaller districts have not yet provided any records in response to the November request.

While some school districts said they are still working on gathering records, others must go to court to defend the public’s rights to see the documents.

San Marcos and Vista Teachers Go to Court

Employees past and present are notified by the school district when substantiated misconduct records will be released to the public. They then can object and seek an injunction in court, barring the district from releasing the records through something called a reverse-PRA action.

Three San Marcos Unified teachers are doing just that. They obtained a temporary restraining order against the district and must now prove to a judge that the records should never be released.

Teachers union attorney Jon Vanderpool is arguing the teachers’ privacy rights outweigh the public’s right to know about their cases and any discipline that resulted from their conduct. He also claims at least some of the content in the records is disputed.

In court filings, San Marcos Unified School District officials disagree.

“Public agency records must be disclosed unless a specific exemption prohibits disclosure,” wrote school district attorney Dean Adams, in a March 1 opposition filing. The teachers failed to demonstrate “they would sustain sufficient harm without an injunction to justify its issuance.”

According to the district’s court filing, one teacher was disciplined following physical contact with a student and another teacher was disciplined following sexually-charged comments to students. The third teacher was disciplined for “actions, inactions and comments of a sexual nature.”

The filing added, “The District will not implement disciplinary action unless, following a thorough investigation that includes the employee’s response to the alleged misconduct, it is convinced that the allegations are well-founded.”

Any claims that the teachers have a history of “exemplary overall performance” aren’t accurate, Adams wrote, as “all three employees have received evaluations with ratings of ‘in-progress,’ ‘emerging,’ or ‘requires improvement,’ all below the top rating of ‘meets standards.’”

The next court hearing is scheduled for April 16.

A retired teacher and a current teacher in the Vista Unified School District are also going to court to prevent the release of sexual misconduct records to Voice of San Diego. The cases were filed March 9.

The next scheduled court hearing in both of those cases is Thursday.

San Ysidro Principal’s Work History A Concern

Voice of San Diego’s request played a role in the upcoming departure of San Ysidro School District principal Joel Tapia, he told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The principal of Smythe Elementary School informed his San Ysidro bosses about records that his former employer, the Solana Beach School District, planned to release to VOSD.

Tapia was placed on special assignment at the district office in January. His pay hasn’t changed, according to district spokesman Francisco Mata. Mata declined to say what role VOSD’s records request played in the job change.

The school board voted Feb. 8 to release Tapia at the end of this school year, the Union-Tribune reported.

The Solana Beach School District provided VOSD with records showing Tapia was investigated during the 2015-16 school year while principal of Solana Vista Elementary School following employee complaints about his professionalism and conduct toward one female employee.

The employee — whose name was withheld — complained in September 2015 that Tapia was constantly checking in on her and “often touches her. Patting her on the back. Putting his arm around her over her shoulder saying, ‘I feel I never see you,’” according district notes of the employee interview.

Those notes also say the employee reported that Tapia would compliment her clothing and the way she wore her hair. “It makes her feel uncomfortable.”

Tapia was questioned by the district’s human resources director, Sal Gumina, a couple days later. In a summary of the meeting, Gumina wrote, “You stated you could not recall/remember any time that you had touched any staff member inappropriately. I emphasized to you, the employee did not believe that the touching was inappropriate, rather, just being touched made her feel uncomfortable.”

The employee didn’t want to file a formal complaint; “she just wanted it to stop,” Gumina wrote. Tapia was directed to not touch employees, unless in an emergency or a handshake.

A few months later, in March 2016, employees complained about Tapia’s leadership and behavior “with trepidation” and fear of retaliation, according to a heavily redacted letter they wrote and that was released by the district. The letter said Tapia continued to touch and check in on the employee who complained.

Afterwards, that employee was again interviewed and reported Tapia “continued to touch” her, “greets her by touching her shoulder and/or back,” and is “Always checking in on her,” records show. He “continues to make comments about her appearance,” “feels she is ‘at wits end,’” and “Feels it is at an extreme. Doesn’t like going to (the school) SV because he is there. She limits her interaction with him. Can’t even look at him.”

Things escalated earlier in the year when Tapia tried to get the employee’s cell phone number from a school secretary. The secretary declined to provide it, so Tapia located her emergency contact card. When he called the number, he reached the employee’s mom, then hung up after identifying himself.

According to Solana Beach’s records, Tapia was put on paid leave April 11, 2016, while the district investigated the allegations.

Gumina interviewed Tapia a few days later, and he denied ever touching the employee on the shoulder or back, district records show. Tapia did say he asked for the employee’s cell phone number, but only for use in an emergency.

Tapia said he located her emergency contact number when a work-related emergency came up. When Gumina asked what it was, Tapia couldn’t remember, but said it could have been related to a special education student, records show.

Tapia told Gumina he noticed the female employee seemed to avoid him and said, “I try to be respectful and sensitive to her. I praise her for her work, trying to be positive and encouraging her in the work setting.”

Tapia was notified in a letter later that month he would remain on paid leave and staff was going to recommend he not be rehired next school year. Instead, Tapia would be released from his probationary contract. Before that happened, Tapia wrote Gumina on May 1 to say he would resign June 30.

“I will look fondly on my time here, with enormous respect for the organization and the wonderful learning taking place every day for students,” Tapia wrote.

The district notified the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, writing that the district’s investigation found many of the allegations against Tapia “were substantiated by the employee witnesses, including the allegation of continued harassment and/or annoyance of a particular female employee.”

Tapia did not respond to multiple requests for an interview about the Solana Beach School District records, or his change in job duties at the San Ysidro School District.

Tapia did send VOSD a February 2017 letter from state credentialing commission, indicating they would not take disciplinary action on his credential after investigating the Solana Beach incidents.

It’s unclear whether Tapia attracted similar scrutiny in San Ysidro. San Ysidro School District has not yet produced any records in response to VOSD’s records request.

Ashly McGlone

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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