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In March 2017, a former Coronado Middle School student complained to school officials that the longtime head high school water polo coach, Randall Burgess, molested him on the high school campus five years earlier, when he was 13.
The student filed a claim against the Coronado Unified School District over the alleged abuse, seeking damages. School district officials promptly placed Burgess on paid leave, and told him they would investigate the claim, which Burgess has adamantly denied.
A winding saga ensued that left Burgess on paid leave from his P.E. teaching position at Coronado High School for more than 200 days and led to multiple court cases – some from Burgess and one from Voice of San Diego, which sought sexual misconduct investigation records from Coronado and every other school district in the county back in November 2017.
Burgess is now newly retired, but it is still unclear what exactly came of that investigation, and Coronado has sent mixed messages about whether a robust investigation was performed at all. Burgess was welcomed back to the Coronado High School campus days after VOSD’s records request.
VOSD is still in court fighting Coronado Unified for records the district withheld about Burgess and other school employees accused of sexual misconduct.
And as it turns out, the school district identified public records about the Burgess case back in December 2017 that it planned to release, but sat on them without requiring Burgess to go through the legally required steps to keep such information from the public, as other school districts have done.
The ongoing dispute and new revelations out of Coronado demonstrate the lengths California school districts sometimes go to withhold records related to educator misconduct.
Under Threat, Coronado Backtracks on Releasing Records
In November 2017, Voice of San Diego requested public records from all 43 public school districts in the county related to sexual misconduct by employees dating back 10 years.
California courts have upheld the public’s right to such records when the claims are well-founded or the employee is disciplined, even if only privately.
Some districts provided the records willingly. Others, like Coronado and La Mesa Spring-Valley, have been less forthcoming. We’ve had to go to court to shake public records out of those districts. Meanwhile, San Diego Unified delayed producing most records for more than a year.
Coronado Unified initially produced nothing to VOSD, then later disclosed a handful of documents showing complaints and reprimands of non-teaching staff only. District officials claimed they had no teacher records responsive to the request.
But Coronado officials actually did initially identify records pertaining to the Burgess case and planned to release them to VOSD. Documents filed in court by Burgess’ attorney reveal Coronado reversed course when another attorney for Burgess threatened to sue the district if it released them.
After providing Burgess notice his records would be released, Clifford Weiler, the school district’s attorney, changed his tune and told Burgess’ attorney Jon Cadieux in a January 2018 email that the district would try to avoid disclosing them.
A more formal letter from Weiler followed, indicating, “Correspondence will be forwarded to the requestor’s attorney (Felix Tinkov) in an attempt to not disclose the documents involving your client.”
Rather than have Burgess get a court order to prevent the release of the documents through a process called a reverse-CPRA action, Coronado simply kept quiet about them until VOSD inquired about Burgess specifically months later.
State law requires public agencies to produce public records “promptly” and says they cannot “delay or obstruct the inspection or copying of public records.”
In May 2018, VOSD asked Coronado why files for Burgess hadn’t been produced. In July 2018, VOSD asked the same about Martin Gallegos, a former JROTC instructor whose sexual abuse case had also been in the news. Gallegos pleaded guilty to statutory rape after a former Mar Vista High School student reported the abuse to police. That student originally filed a lawsuit against Sweetwater Union High School District and Coronado Unified, Gallegos’ previous employer, for negligence. She claimed Coronado knowingly passed Gallegos on to Sweetwater despite previous sexual misconduct allegations. Coronado was later dropped from the suit.
At the time, Weiler said no documents were identified or withheld for Gallegos, but now Coronado says it does have a disciplinary document of some kind for Gallegos, and is trying to locate and notify him it will be released, according to a log of records in the district’s possession created by Weiler and an email from the district sent to VOSD last week. That would mean the district is only now carrying out the functions required of it by law nearly two years after we made the request.
When pressed about the lack of Burgess records in 2018, Weiler told VOSD in an email, “the District was not able to substantiate the allegations,” and, “Had the individual been disciplined, formally or informally, or if any of the allegations made against him were determined to be well-founded or substantiated, then the information would have been disclosed.” He’s referring to the legal standards guiding when records like these must be disclosed to the public.
But Burgess himself has argued he was disciplined by Coronado Unified in multiple lawsuits against the district.
What’s more, in a November 2017 reinstatement letter, the district urged Burgess to never be alone with a student in light of the allegations.
“It is strongly recommended that you not be alone with any student within the general education program or to the extent if any it becomes relevant, within extracurricular activities, unless absolutely necessary for the health, safety or welfare of that particular student,” wrote Rita Beyers, then the assistant superintendent of human resources.
Under threat of litigation from VOSD, Weiler then went back to Burgess to notify him records involving the complaint would be disclosed after all. Weiler also reminded Burgess he could still go to court to try to stop the district from releasing them, court documents show.
Burgess did just that – he petitioned the court to keep all district documents secret. That effort was largely unsuccessful.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith Hayes ordered Coronado to release 22 pages to VOSD pertaining to the Burgess case in October 2018.
Another record request filed by VOSD in August 2018 sought correspondence sent to Coronado Unified regarding Burgess from 2017 to present. Burgess fought in court to keep those records from the public as well, and lost.
In January, VOSD received public emails from community members sent to school administrators, a video recording of a school board meeting, a lengthy petition signed by former students and community members in support of reinstatement of Burgess and the student’s full molestation claim lodged in March 2017 as part of a court-ordered disclosure.
We are now seeking other sexual misconduct records still being withheld by the district involving Burgess and other employees. A judge is scheduled to hear the case Oct. 25.
Weiler has since been replaced as the school district attorney handling the dispute. Jack Sleeth, a partner with the firm Artiano Shinoff, took over in August.
Coronado’s Investigation Into the Burgess Allegations
VOSD is seeking records detailing Coronado Unified’s investigation into the claims against Burgess.
Particulars about the Burgess investigation – like who or what agency conducted the probe, how many people were interviewed and whether a conclusion was reached – still remain unclear.
The district has said in court records that a formal investigation of the student’s molestation allegations was carried out for six months. School officials said the results of the investigation did not corroborate the claims against Burgess.
But a subsequent court record filed by the district in April of this year called the district’s investigation into question. Coronado Unified told the court on April 11 that “it does not possess any public records relating to the outcome of said claims.”
We pressed the district on that claim.
In response, district spokesman Jeremy Lyche wrote in an email to VOSD that a formal investigation was conducted, but “not by a school district employee.” The district declined to clarify whether the investigation was conducted by an outside agency or private firm.
Lyche said that that investigation cleared Burgess. “Had investigation supported any of the allegations, that accused school employee would not have returned to active classroom teaching,” he wrote in the email.
We do know that the district declined the student’s attorney’s request to extend the timeline of its own investigation. On Nov. 1, 2017, the student’s attorney asked the district for an extension of its own investigation as it attempted to interview former water polo players regarding the allegations.
“To expedite this matter, the District declined that request,” Beyers, the assistant superintendent, wrote in a reinstatement letter to Burgess.
The district has until Sept. 9 to respond to a discovery request from VOSD.
Burgess led Coronado High’s water polo program for 34 years and retired from that job in 2015. He continued to teach ninth grade physical education and coach water polo at the school through last school year and retired on June 15, according to the district. He will receive $6,073.18 per month in retirement benefits, or $72,878.16 a year, state pension officials said.
Burgess is currently the boys’ head coach at the Coronado Aquatics Club, according to the club website.
Burgess did not respond to messages left with the club and his attorney.