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When longtime Chula Vista High School choir teacher Anthony Atienza was found responsible for harassing female students in 2017 and removed from the school, he denied the allegations and said the claims came from “the imaginations of three troubled high school girls.”
Now, several graduates of Atienza’s class over the years and a former volunteer assistant director say some of the behavior reported last year was not isolated. They told Voice of San Diego Atienza regularly crossed boundaries with students.
Their accounts date back to the early 2000s and include an uncomfortable encounter on a school trip out of state, massage circles, butt-slapping, commenting on a student’s chest size, and revealing photo shoots with students.
Atienza, who remained on paid leave through June 30 under a deal reached with the Sweetwater Union High School District, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview about the new allegations.
As VOSD reported last month, students in 2017 reported Atienza targeted them for months with sexual touching and remarks, leering, and they reported startling incidents on school trips and personal trips to the mall.
A months-long district investigation by then-Assistant Principal Hilda Cadena concluded, “Mr. Atienza’s severe and pervasive conduct created a hostile and intimidating environment for the three complainants, and it is reasonable to assume that other current and former students have felt the same way.”
Sweetwater Union High School District officials said no substantiated sexual misconduct complaints or investigations involving Atienza exist before last year.
Atienza worked for the Sweetwater school district since 1992 before he signed a departure deal in October that required Sweetwater officials to keep the allegations and findings confidential from future employers. While on leave from Sweetwater, Atienza worked for Lakeside Middle School during the 2017-18 school year, and taught classes for Christian Youth Theater San Diego and San Diego Junior Theatre.
Atienza has no public record of discipline with the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, though officials there were investigating the reports in recent months. He is free to teach in the meantime.
Like officials at Lakeside schools and CYT, San Diego Junior Theatre leaders said they were unaware of the Sweetwater investigation when Atienza was hired in April to teach music workshops.
After the VOSD article was published “a few parents did voice general concerns about Mr. Atienza’s employment,” James Saba, executive director of San Diego Junior Theatre, wrote in an email. Atienza’s work there ended June 9. The workshops were scheduled to end June 16.
Melissa Jungk, a 2004 Chula Vista High graduate, said her choir class with Atienza never felt right, and a daily massage routine at the start of class to warm up their vocals never made sense.
“From the beginning, it just felt real uncomfortable,” Jungk said. “I never understood why we had to stand in a circle and give each other neck and shoulder massages.”
She said that during the exercise, Atienza would often leer at the young women in the room and ask them to massage him too.
His interactions with students outside the classroom were also off-putting.
“The way he would talk and the body language, you knew it was more on the flirtatious side. It was not normal teacher-student behavior,” she said. On her walk through the school parking lot after school, “I would constantly see, that I recall, there was like three students that always were in his vehicle, that would climb into his vehicle and they would go off.”
Atienza admitted to school officials last year he regularly took some students home or on errands, sometimes without parent permission.
Jungk, who was in Atienza’s regular choir class and not the traveling show choir group he led, said she thinks fear stopped past students from complaining about Atienza.
“There is that fear that if we report something, the program is going to be taken away. We are not going to be able to go anywhere,” she said. “I know I wouldn’t want to lose a program when you are doing what you love and performing.”
Erika Osuna graduated from Chula Vista High in 2010. She said Atienza crossed boundaries with her, but her feelings were complicated by the encouragement and opportunities he gave her. Atienza recruited her from the school’s all-girls choir to join his co-ed choir, Main Attraction. She was part of that group her junior and senior year.
“From the get-go, he was always super encouraging,” she said. “He was like, ‘I believe in you. I think you are so talented.’ He trained me and gave me a bunch of solos from my first year. Now that I look back at it, I can see that’s what he does to get you comfortable with what he does.”
One comment he made really stuck with her. She said Atienza told her if she was ever going to make it as a performer, “that I would need to get a boob job. And if he had the money he would pay for it.”
She also said it was normal for him to hug her and touch her legs.
He “built me up and I just looked up to him so much. … My senior year was a really, really tough year for me. I felt comfortable with him, so I let this stuff happen,” she said.
Trips in Atienza’s car for food or errands were normal. Osuna said her and a friend were treated to an extra nice dinner with Atienza while on a school trip to New York.
“He would buy you lunches and he would buy you dinner and he would make you feel like a princess,” she said.
Osuna said she could relate to the sentiment expressed by a 2017 student who told school officials Atienza’s remarks “made her feel like he owned her.”
“He would always tell us not to cut our hair, because longer hair is prettier. ‘Don’t cut your hair. Short hair is gross. What did I tell you?’ he would say. It was always playful,” Osuna said.
The closeness between Osuna and Atienza didn’t go unnoticed by other students and caused tension, especially after Atienza announced she would get a solo without auditions being held, she said. He also picked her for a feature in InTouch magazine after “Glee,” a TV show about a high school show choir, came out.
She said Atienza told her to tell her peers the magazine found her on YouTube, rather than say he chose her. To avoid more drama, she did.
Emotions ran high as graduation neared, and she told Atienza she wanted out. She recalls him telling her he would fail her if she left and missed her solo performance. So, she stuck it out.
Osuna described it as one of the “lowest, darkest times of my life,” but “I never blamed him,” she said. “He gave me so many opportunities, how could I think that he has any bad blood toward me, or any selfish reasons of his own? But looking back, he should have protected me, and he didn’t.”
After reading about the 2017 student reports, Osuna said she wishes she had spoken up sooner.
“I am so sorry those girls had to go through that, knowing if I had said something back then, maybe he would have woken up,” Osuna said. “These girls aren’t fabricating. They are so brave. … I didn’t do anything. I should have gone to the principal, and I didn’t do anything, and I applaud them for what they’ve done.”
For 2004 Chula Vista High graduate Alanna Leavy, who went by her first name, Rachel, in high school, seeing claims about Atienza’s behavior surface has been a long time coming.
Leavy, who took Atienza’s classes her first three years and played an instrument for his choir while still in eighth grade, said she witnessed Atienza slap a girl’s butt, saw another girl sit in his lap and knew he took one of her friends to a mall to purchase a bra.
“It bothered me a lot. I know that I was pretty upset about it. … He was crossing the line sexually with underage girls when he is in a position of power and prestige… Me personally, I was always uncomfortable with him.”
Leavy also said she recalls Atienza leering at her.
“The only time I remember him crossing the line with me was one time when he looked my body all the way down and up and then went back and looked at my butt for a long moment.”
While on a school choir Disneyworld trip to Florida in Spring 2001, Leavy heard about a hotel room encounter between Atienza and other female students while he was doing curfew checks. One of the students in the room at the time, a 2002 graduate who did not want to be named, confirmed the facts of Leavy’s retelling to VOSD.
“He had walked into a hotel room where four of his choir girls were staying,” Leavy said. “One of the girls was in the shower and after hearing that she was in the shower, took a seat on one of the beds and waited, and when she got out of the shower to come out and grab some clothes, he told her to take a seat in her towel and proceeded to have a discussion with them” for several minutes.
Leavy said she is gathering statements from other former students to provide to the teacher credentialing commission.
“Even though he may never change, I feel like this is part of a bigger movement in which we all are responsible to step up and say this is no longer going to be tolerated.”
Shortly after graduating from Bonita Vista High in 2004, Pablo Siqueiros volunteered as an assistant director to Atienza from June 2004 to 2008.
He said he remembers observing several concerning things during that time.
“There were times he made sexually suggestive jokes with students. … It was kind of a regular thing,” Siqueiros said. “I recall students saying kind of like, ‘Oh, Mr. A. You are so gross.’ Still kind of in a joking manner, but you can tell they are not feeling very comfortable with this, but in an effort to keep things light, we are not going to say anything about it.”
He also recalls seeing Atienza hit female students on the butt with a lanyard. One particular incident sometime around 2007 remains fresh in his mind.
“This I remember vividly. We were in a rehearsal in class. There was a female student standing in front of him. He was sitting down. He sort of pulled her to sit on his lap. When he pulled her down, he had his hands on her thighs. That was one of those instances where she was like, ‘Eww. Mr. A. You’re gross.’”
Siqueiros also remembers a photo wall Atienza had featuring students, some of them in performance clothes and others in regular clothes. He said some images were provocative. A few alumni who spoke to VOSD, but didn’t want to be named, also mentioned the photo wall and photo shoots as a source of concern.
“He often did glamour shoots with his students, and not all of them were that sexually explicit. It’s often what you would see your typical senior picture kind of thing,” Siqueiros said. But on one occasion, Siqueiros said Atienza was showing the male assistant directors images from a student photo shoot he did that weren’t on the wall.
“He was showing us these pictures he had taken of one of his students. She was at the beach. The further we got into the photo shoot he did with her we noticed in a couple pictures, she was only wearing an open jacket with nothing underneath,” he said. “We all sort of gave a look to each other, like that was not OK.”
Siqueiros said he was not altogether surprised to see the 2017 student harassment reports.
“I am shocked that this came out, but not shocked by his actions,” he said. “I’m surprised it took this long for someone to formally make a complaint about it.”