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Christy Heiskala taught her children from a young age their body was theirs alone, and they didn’t need to hug, kiss or touch anyone they didn’t want to, including family. No one could touch them without their consent.
Just two weeks into the school year at Carlsbad’s Pacific Rim Elementary in September 2007, Heiskala’s third grade daughter came home from school and said her teacher, Raymond Firth, had touched her inappropriately.
She was the last one in class filling out her planner as Firth began to massage her shoulders, rub her chest and moved down to her crotch area, she told her mom. She left the classroom stunned and Firth said he would see her the next day, as if nothing had happened.
It was a Thursday. By Friday morning, Heiskala was at the principal’s office to report her daughter’s incident. The principal sent her to meet with Carlsbad Unified School District officials.
When Heiskala and her daughter entered the district office, an attorney for the school district was present and asked what her intentions were, she recalls.
“What do you mean? My intention is to get this teacher out of the class,” Heiskala said she responded.
Firth was quickly removed from the classroom and put on paid leave, according to court records. Heiskala was told the school would report the incident to police and child protective services. A few days later, Heiskala made her own reports anyway.
“The police said, ‘This doesn’t make sense. Why would a teacher molest a student in the first two weeks of school?’” she recalls. She found that reasoning baffling: “When does it ever make sense?”
As Heiskala navigated the school and law enforcement systems, she was troubled by the barriers to justice she encountered, even though her daughter reported the incident right away.
“Nothing happened the way you think,” Heiskala said of the process. “It was literally a battle every step.”
Then-deputy district attorney Kelly Mok took her daughter’s case, but told Heiskala that even though her daughter’s report was credible, they would need to wait for other victims in order to build a solid case.
Mok, now a Superior Court judge, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment, but a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office confirmed Heiskala’s account.
“After a thorough and careful review of the initial incident in 2007, we determined there was not enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Tanya Sierra in an email. “As with many sensitive cases of this nature, our office works with law enforcement to continue investigating until we are confident we have the evidence required to file charges.”
That happened in 2008. “Our goal is always to obtain justice for victims and to make the justice system easier to navigate with the assistance of our victim advocates,” Sierra wrote.
In 2008, two different students told police Firth penetrated them with his fingers under their clothes. Firth was prosecuted for crimes involving all three victims.
In 2010, Firth took a deal and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of false imprisonment for the incident with Heiskala’s daughter, and two counts of sexual battery for his actions with the others. He was sentenced to three years, eight months behind bars, but served just 22 months before being released, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Firth is now a registered sex offender.
Upset by the plea deal and convinced the district could have done more to stop Firth, Heiskala took her concerns to attorney David Ring. The family filed a lawsuit against Firth and Carlsbad Unified School District, for negligent supervision.
Ring has handled school employee misconduct cases for 25 years.
“It’s an epidemic, and I think administrators in public schools are reluctant to discipline teachers because they get a lot of pushback for any discipline they try to implement, so the path of least resistance is to not discipline at all,” Ring said. “I’ve seen some of the best schools have predators in their midst. I’ve seen some of the least desirable schools have excellent supervision policies. Schools in good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods, doesn’t matter. Carlsbad is a perfect example of that.”
What they found in the civil case was disturbing.
“If she (deputy district attorney Mok) investigated at all, she would have seen the same file we saw in the civil case,” Heiskala said. “My daughter may have been the only one to go to the police, but others came forward.”
District records showed school employees observed and heard concerns about Firth’s physical interactions with students. Some of the earliest concerns were raised in 2001-02, when a parent complained to the principal that Firth had too much physical contact with students.
The vice principal observed children sitting on Firth’s lap at assemblies, and sitting on his lap and under his desk in the classroom. In 2004-05, after-school program staff reported Firth was conducting tutoring sessions in his class with the door closed.
The principal also found Firth alone in class with a female student during recess, and saw students sitting on his knee or holding his hand, according to district records. Another child reported he pulled on her underwear. Her mom told another teacher and later wrote a letter to the district recounting the incident.
Firth was occasionally spoken to but remained in the classroom.
“I think it’s atrocious that these people that are allowing this to happen have no consequences,” Heiskala said, referring to school administrators.
Firth’s personnel file became key evidence in the civil case, which ended in 2012 with a $4.5 million jury award for Heiskala’s daughter and another victim. Firth and the school district were ordered to share the costs.
Carlsbad Unified appealed the decision, but an appellate court upheld the award in 2014.
Heiskala’s experience stuck with her and had a major impact.
She now works as a child abuse victim advocate and was trained by the nonprofit Darkness to Light to provide child sexual abuse and molestation prevention training to local schools, groups and organizations.
Her San Diego business, formed in 2016, is called Educate to Eliminate. In her sessions, she covers the early signs of predator grooming and simple ways to give children ownership of their bodies.
She advises parents to teach their children about consent, trusting their instincts and even letting children have control over what they wear and how they do their hair from a young age.
“Kids need to know they are in charge of their bodies,” she said.
Some might teach children about private zones people can’t touch, but Heiskala’s no-touch zone includes the entire body. Days before Firth rubbed her daughter’s chest and groin, he rubbed her shoulders to test her, her daughter later told her.
“Grooming can be any part of the body. It can be your back, rubbing your shoulders, your knee,” she said.
When something does happen, Heiskala recommends reporting it to any relevant party, including the police, child welfare services, the school and a therapist, if possible, to create a larger paper trail.
Ring, Heiskala’s civil attorney, also suggests parents make their own reports about educator grooming or abuse.
“Way too often they are not reporting it to the authorities … They go about investigating it themselves. They ask the teacher about it and he denies it,” he said, referring to school administrators. “Don’t wait for the district to do the right thing. Go to the police and have them write a report.”
Based on her own experience and working with others dealing with child abuse in schools, Heiskala has noted some systemic issues that she said need to be fixed.
Schools are supposed to have a dedicated Title IX officer, as required by federal law, to field sexual discrimination and harassment complaints. But at the K-12 level, they often lack an effective one.
“They just assign someone, and they don’t even know what that means,” she said.
Another problem: Employees are required to report abuse and suspected abuse to local authorities, but sometimes school districts require employees to tell their superior instead, and leave it to them to make the report.
Employee training, she believes, is inadequate, and sometimes doesn’t even happen at all.
While a lot of attention is being given to schools for active shooter training, child abuse and harassment on campus is more likely to occur and should be given more attention, Heiskala said, citing a 2004 federal study that found nearly one in 10 students will be subjected to sexual misconduct by school personnel.
That’s almost three students in a classroom of 30.
For schools, Heiskala advises against any one-on-one employee encounters with students, including teachers, counselors and aides. When necessary, she suggests a glass door be installed.
Ring said what administrators do when “red flags” are brought to their attention can make a big difference.
“Some act quickly and decisively, and others brush it off,” he said. “Truly it comes from the administration and the administrators setting the tone in terms of what they allow,” like “teachers having students in their classroom at lunch, and teachers hugging students and teachers texting students without fear of reprisal” or having students on their lap.
Some districts, when faced with misconduct allegations against an employee, simply move him or her to another position – a practice Heiskala believes only perpetuates the problem. Same goes for exit deals districts reach with problem employees allowing them to keep their records clean, sometimes with letters of recommendation.
Agency record retention policies can also be a problem, since documented complaints can be purged before other victims of the same employee come forward.
Ring says policies that require complaints against employees be handled at the lowest possible level – language included in some local union contracts – hurt students.
“It is so difficult to get documentation into official employment files. … There’s a huge problem. There is no tracking of complaints from the past. A bunch of complaints are made over the years, and there is no central location for them, or it’s in a folder thrown away every year,” Ring said. “The only person who ever sees it is the principal and when principal leaves, the file leaves.”
Heiskala hopes to see a system created for K-12 schools that’s similar to the Callisto project, originally aimed at colleges, where people can submit complaints online to a database. When there is a match – two or more people complaining about the same person – the complaints are sent to the authorities. The system provides comfort to those afraid of being the only victim.
Being the first person to complain can also pose extra obstacles.
“The person who comes forward first, they are courageous … but people are skeptical because there’s been no other complaints about the person,” Ring said. “It’s definitely hard, because police want to see multiple complaints and multiple victims. It’s a catch-22. Unless the first person comes forward, there is no second person.”
“There’s always all these other witnesses. They always think they are the only ones,” Heiskala said. “You’re kidding yourself if you think it’s not happening in your school. It’s happening at your school every day.”
In February, two more of Firth’s students filed a lawsuit against Firth and Carlsbad Unified School District alleging abuse. The case is still pending.
Firth declined to comment through an attorney, citing the pending litigation.