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“Just so you know, no one else has ever made a complaint,” a Chula Vista High graduate recalls being told by school officials before she complained her show choir teacher was sexually harassing her and groped her repeatedly.
“I feel like every adult who was an administrator in my life at the time failed me,” a former Bonita Vista High student sexually abused by his band teacher said. “I had a counselor talk to me for 10 minutes and then that was it.”
As we’ve been reporting on sexual misconduct cases in local schools for the past two years, we’ve revealed some obvious and egregious violations: teachers who failed to report their colleagues’ abuse despite being obligated to do so by state law, and administrators who did not report suspected criminal acts to police.
But most students who’ve shared their stories with us have also said they experienced a softer kind of failing by the adults entrusted with protecting them – one that’s harder to articulate. They say administrators were overly critical or defensive as they investigated reports of misconduct. Or they didn’t do enough to recognize and probe red flags that students were in danger. Some failed to ensure students who’d been abused or harassed had support throughout the investigation process, and into the future.
Many of these students say their experiences still haunt them regularly – not just because of the abuse or harassment itself, but because the way their cases were handled complicated the healing process.
They believe more follow-up, support and care from school officials could have revealed the truth sooner in some cases and stop abusers in their tracks. If red flags are raised and it’s clear something is amiss, they say a single round of questioning from officials isn’t enough.
As schools and districts move to create new policies aimed at preventing abuse, school officials should consider these accounts. Students say adults responding to reports of abuse shouldn’t just check the boxes of what’s required by the law or official policies. They should also react with concern and work to ensure students feel supported throughout the process.
Discouraged From Coming Forward – or Hounded When They Do
The first time Chula Vista High student Moriah Brogden was called to the office and asked whether her show choir teacher, Anthony Atienza, touched her inappropriately, she denied it. Part of the reason was the vice principal’s approach, she said.
“Before my answer, she stopped me and she looked at me and she was like, ‘Just so you know, no one else has ever made a complaint about Tony Atienza before,’” recalled Brogden. “And I just felt like that was an indirect, like, ‘Be quiet’ … I just said, ‘No.’ I just wanted to kind of get out of there.”
Brogden, now 19, and two other students eventually reported Atienza to school officials in early 2017 for regularly groping them and other inappropriate behavior, often done in front of other students. School officials found their accounts credible, and concluded Atienza’s behavior was “severe and pervasive.”
Atienza largely denied the claims made against him. Chula Vista police opened an investigation but did not arrest Atienza. The district attorney’s office declined to prosecute, and Atienza’s teaching credential is still valid.
A Carlsbad student in the throes of a sexual relationship with her La Costa Canyon High School English teacher Marc Sandknop in 2010 recalled to Voice of San Diego how school officials acting on another teacher’s tip confronted her and blamed her for protecting Sandknop when she denied anything inappropriate had happened.
She said it’s likely things would have been exposed sooner if school officials had treated her as a victim and not an accomplice.
Sandknop was transferred to a middle school, and resigned years later after the former student told police he molested her. Criminal charges were never filed, but Sandknop’s teaching credential was revoked at his request amid misconduct allegations in 2016.
Former La Jolla High School student Loxie Gant said the principal tried to dissuade her from reporting her physics teacher, Martin Teachworth, grabbed her butt twice in a row in class in 2003, before calling in an investigator. Teachworth remained in the classroom until he retired in 2017 despite several other student complaints over the years, records show.
Teachworth said he never touched a student inappropriately, but his teaching credential was revoked for misconduct this year.
Red Flags Ignored
Schools are legally required to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement and child welfare workers, but Voice of San Diego’s investigation has found sexual misconduct cases involving school employees are handled in a variety of ways, and the role school police play may ultimately help or hurt a case.
San Diego Unified’s police force, for instance, found Teachworth’s conduct with another student in 2003 to be criminal, but no criminal charges were filed and the district attorney’s office could not find a record the case was ever referred to them.
Gabriel Huerta’s father brought concerns about his son’s lengthy phone calls and interactions with the Bonita Vista High School band teacher, Jason Mangan-Magabilin, to school administrators multiple times before Huerta graduated in 2011.
“Looking back, I feel like every adult who was an administrator in my life at the time failed me,” said Huerta. “I had a counselor talk to me for 10 minutes and then that was it. There was no one monitoring the teacher that was abusing me… I went through December and my whole spring semester (senior year) continuing to be groomed and abused and isolated, and that continued into adulthood until I reported him a few years after I graduated.”
Mangan-Magabilin was arrested and charged with nine counts of oral copulation with a minor and four counts of sexual penetration by a foreign object with a minor. Huerta said he reported dozens of sexual encounters with Mangan-Magabilin to law enforcement, many of which took place on campus. Mangan-Magabilin eventually pleaded guilty to two felony counts and lost his teaching credential.
But the red flags should have been taken seriously by others at Bonita Vista at the time, Huerta said.
“They should have picked up on the amount of one-on-one time and all the signs of grooming between me and my teacher. The show choir teacher could have noticed. Anyone who was staying after school. Anyone who saw me in the copy room without anyone there. If the principal did her job, there could have been more monitoring and it wouldn’t have been too late,” he said.
Huerta believes more observation of the band room would have helped, and that other students would have confirmed something was not right between Huerta and Mangan-Magabilin if anyone had thought to ask them.
“You pick a teacher or administrator on campus who is good with kids. You get her or him observing the band room or whatever classroom you suspect and start talking to the other students. They’ll talk,” Huerta said.
The Sweetwater Union High School District paid Huerta $650,000 to settle a negligence lawsuit but admitted no wrongdoing.
A separate lawsuit against the Sweetwater district made similar claims that officials didn’t do enough to investigate an improper relationship even when there were plenty of signs that something was wrong.
Navy Junior ROTC instructor Martin Gallegos gave a female Mar Vista High School student frequent car rides and bought her lunch so often “It became known to other JROTC instructors and students that Gallegos ate lunch alone with (the student) Roe,” according to the student’s subsequent lawsuit against the Sweetwater school district.
Their contact became sexual, and Gallegos eventually pleaded guilty to statutory rape in 2016. He was sentenced to a year in jail and three years of probation. Sweetwater settled the student’s lawsuit in 2018 for $2 million.
A female teacher in San Diego Unified School District used similar methods to ingratiate herself with a male student, attracting attention from others on campus.
Crawford High School Spanish teacher Toni Sutton spent a lot of alone time with a male student she later sexually abused. She would give him rides to and from school, and they’d spend so much time in her classroom – where some of their sexual encounters took place – that other teachers noticed the student’s attendance in other classes began to falter, according to court records.
Sutton pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse and oral copulation with the minor in 2016. A jury ordered Sutton and the San Diego Unified School District to pay the student, who sued for negligence and distress, a combined $2.1 million in 2018, records show.
Exit Deals That Hamper Healing
After school officials substantiated her complaints about Atienza and those of two other female students, Brogden was appalled to learn he was permitted to resign with a confidentiality agreement that prevented Sweetwater from disclosing the complaints and investigation findings to future employers.
Atienza went on to work for Lakeside Middle School, multiple nonprofit youth theater groups and continues to lead a youth singing group called California Singin’.
“I’m just so mad at the district. It’s really the district’s fault that he is able to continue and do this, and I just, I can’t express enough how much I feel like they are aiding him,” she said.
Records show several other districts have also struck departure deals which require sexual misconduct investigations or findings to be kept secret from future employers in exchange for a teacher’s resignation.
Such cases span from Poway to Chula Vista, and beyond.
What Schools Are Doing
Some change locally is happening, though.
San Diego Unified is taking steps to clarify the roles agencies should play in investigating student harassment cases, and recently formed an interagency task force aimed at better collaborating to protect students.
Others – like the California School Boards Association and San Diego County Office of Education – recently enumerated the types of inappropriate conduct with students that employees should avoid. Some school districts have also adopted policies limiting employees’ use of social media and other technology to contact students.
Both Atienza and Mangan-Magabilin worked in the Sweetwater Union High School District. Both teachers used email and text messages to make inappropriate contact with their victims, documents show.
So did Sandknop, and there are several other local cases of school employees using technology to make inappropriate contact with students, Voice of San Diego has found.
San Dieguito Union High School District – which includes La Costa Canyon High – adopted new anti-sexual harassment policies for students in August that requires students to receive age-appropriate information about sexual harassment, reporting misconduct by employees and their rights to file civil or criminal complaints, among other things. The district’s employee technology policy has included social media restrictions since at least 2015.
Superintendent Robert Haley said the board will soon consider a new employee-student boundary policy and that it will be “much more substantial” than the version offered by the California School Boards Association.
A spokesman for the Sweetwater Union High School District earlier this year said officials there were working on revising its technology policy to deal with teacher-student interactions over social media and text messages, following the costly misconduct cases.
The district did adopt a new technology policy for students earlier this year, but it does not explicitly address inappropriate contact with staff. Sweetwater’s spokesman, Manuel Rubio, now says no revisions are planned for the employee technology or employee conduct policies.
“Staff received a mandated training in appropriate boundaries that covers this subject matter,” said Rubio. “For staff, we will continue our mandated appropriate boundaries trainings.”