Inside a Decade’s Worth of Harassment and Abuse Complaints at Westview High - Voice of San Diego

Education

Inside a Decade’s Worth of Harassment and Abuse Complaints at Westview High

Five of the six people who have been accused of or found to have engaged in boundary-crossing interactions with current or former Westview High School students over the last decade were athletic coaches. Few faced any consequences. Two are still employed.

Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

A new accusation against a Westview High School employee is just the latest in a string of sexual assault and harassment incidents to have surfaced at the school over the last decade.

Five of the six people who have been accused of or found to have engaged in boundary-crossing interactions with students over the last decade were athletic coaches at the school. Few of them faced any consequences. Two are still employed.

Teresa Tsang, 22, told Voice of San Diego her former English teacher Derek Peterson sent her texts in 2015, when she was 18 and had recently graduated, that were sexually suggestive, including one that referenced her “dirty little mouth.”

She said he recently tried to add her as a friend on Facebook, and she is concerned about his persistence in keeping contact with her.

“If he’s persistent enough to contact me after five years, who knows what he’s doing to girls now? This guy is still a problem. It’s still going to be an issue unless they do something about it,” she said.

Poway Unified School District administrators investigated Peterson for a similar incident in 2016, and even removed him from his coaching position as a result, but allowed him to continue teaching.

Newly released investigatory records also show that in another case, former social science teacher and baseball coach Michael Hymes abruptly resigned in January 2019 after former Westview students alleged he sent them sexual text messages and made sexually suggestive comments to them. In another instance, a former student accused teacher Christian Michel of grabbing and fondling her breasts in his classroom in December 2016. Now, the former student is suing Michel, who has since retired, and the district.

More than once, Poway Unified officials determined that because no actual sexual contact had occurred and it was the teacher’s first offense, the teachers in questions should be allowed to keep their jobs. The incidents illuminate the lengths officials at the school have gone to keep numerous teachers accused of misconduct employed.

New Allegations Fit a Pattern

Tsang recently started an online petition demanding Westview High School take sexual violence seriously. She said she decided to publish the text messages Peterson sent her in 2015 because even though she had already graduated at the time, he is still working with female students.

Tsang said at the time Peterson sent her the inappropriate text, she told a few friends, but didn’t report it to the district because she had already graduated and was 18 at the time. She said she believed the school’s tight-knit community would protect Peterson, who was beloved by the Westview community.

Tsang took Peterson’s English class during her senior year and they exchanged phone numbers after she graduated, she said. She said Peterson would ask her about her college experience, and would often bring up how naïve and young she was.

She said that though she received the texts when she was 18, she worries Peterson could send similar messages to younger students.

“It makes me feel really disappointed in him. Teachers have such an influential role and impact,” she said.

She isn’t the first student Peterson made uncomfortable with sexually insinuating text messages.

In 2016, a student reported to school officials that Peterson had texted her that he’d had an “inappropriate” dream about her.

Peterson was a coach for Westview’s junior varsity girls’ basketball team; the 10th grade student he was texting was a former player on the team.

When the student asked Peterson what the dream was about, he said he would have to wait to tell her more about it when she graduated. “I also need to know that our conversations stay here and don’t get out to anyone. I trust you right?” he wrote.

The student told a school employee, and filed a formal complaint.

School officials began an investigation, records obtained by Voice of San Diego through a public records request show. Peterson told administrators at the time that it was common for him to text students and players. Peterson told officials he had “no clue” why he made the comment about the inappropriate dream to the student, records show.

Poway Unified officials ultimately issued Peterson a warning and removed him as girls basketball coach.

Now, the district has again placed Peterson on paid administrative leave, pending an investigation of Tsang’s allegations.

“Westview High School and PUSD were made aware of the new allegations via the petition,” Christine Paik, a spokeswoman for the district, wrote. “We are saddened to read about our former student’s struggles with feeling fearful and her subsequent decision not to report this conduct to the school or PUSD.”

Peterson declined Voice of San Diego’s interview request.

A Decade’s Worth of Allegations

Westview officials also faced blowback for their handling of a teacher who in 2017 sent inappropriate texts to a former student, Jordan Clay, now 21, and remains on staff.

Physical education teacher and football and track coach Tim Medlock sent Clay a series of text messages, the most notable of which were “Good luck stud,” “Kick some ass,” “Should I be jealous you have a new BFF? ;)” and “Hope you don’t forget me,” during her junior and senior years.

Her parents found the texts and reported them to then-principal Todd Cassen in April 2017. They say he agreed the messages were inappropriate. District records show Cassen addressed those concerns with Medlock in an informal matter. Then her parents made a formal complaint to the Poway Unified School District in June 2017.

Medlock admitted during the investigation that several of the texts were inappropriate. Clay was not questioned as part of the district’s initial investigation. “No one ever talked to (my daughter). She was the innocent child they all pushed to the side and never even asked her how she was and how did she feel about Medlock and did anything more happen?” Jennifer Clay, Jordan Clay’s mother, told VOSD in 2019.

James Jimenez, an assistant superintendent of personnel services and Title IX and equity compliance coordinator at the district, previously told Voice of San Diego the text messages themselves were enough for the district to consider in its investigation.

Poway Unified ultimately substantiated the allegations, and issued Medlock a warning.

Unsatisfied with the district’s findings, Clay’s parents brought forth more claims around May 2018 that Medlock gave Clay and other female students hugs, gave her special treatment and created situations to be alone with her in class, asked her on a lunch date and took a photograph of her and a friend in bathing suits during water polo, among other complaints.

Jimenez led the investigation into the new claims. The district determined some of Medlock’s interactions were unprofessional but didn’t warrant termination in March 2019, according to records provided to Voice of San Diego by the family.

Clay’s parents and other members of the Westview High School community have pushed for Poway officials to fire Medlock because of the interactions. And they are concerned the district didn’t notify the Westview community about the accusations until media reports surfaced.

Paik, the district spokeswoman, said thorough investigations were conducted and completed in Peterson and Medlock’s cases and the district determined those teachers’ actions “to be inappropriate or unprofessional, but not criminal or warranting termination.”

“We believe the level of discipline they received was appropriate for these first instances. They were removed from coaching positions and received letters in their files,” she wrote. “The education code has an onerous process for employee terminations. Districts are unable to dismiss employees unless their offenses rise to a certain level as described by ed code.”

In a letter to Voice of San Diego on June 23, Medlock defended his behavior and noted that the accusation against him had been thoroughly investigated by school officials.

“As teachers we are constantly told that we must build relationships with our students. We are told we must ‘reach them before we can teach them.’ My efforts to build strong positive relationships has been turned into an accusation of ‘grooming.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. I am proud of the long history I have of building relationships with my students. I’m both sad and angry at how my efforts have been twisted into something so ugly and so completely against what I believe in and who I am,” he wrote.

The Poway Unified School District recently updated its employee use of technology policy to specify that district employees, including teachers and administrators, should refrain from communicating with students through technology for personal reasons outside of the classroom.

The district did not report accusations against Peterson or Medlock to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing – the agency that weighs whether to revoke the teaching credentials of those accused of misconduct – “because none of them were dismissed, suspended for more than 10 days, or resigned due to misconduct, so they did not meet the reporting requirements,” Paik, the district spokeswoman, said.

Districts are only required by law to report teachers to the commission who have been dismissed, suspended, placed on leave or who resigned as a result of a misconduct allegation, but a spokesman for the agency said districts are free to proactively report other misconduct allegations that don’t trigger employment changes.

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Newly released district investigatory records reveal that in another case, Hymes, a social science teacher and baseball coach, quietly resigned in the middle of a district investigation into allegations in 2018 that he sent sexual text messages, made sexually suggestive comments and had physical contact with students.

A Westview graduate told school counselor Vanessa Ho that Hymes, her former teacher, began making sexual comments to her shortly after her graduation in June 2017, according to a letter Jimenez, the associate superintendent, wrote to the state credentialing agency on Dec. 16, 2019.

“Although she was 18 at the time, (she) stated the comments made her very uncomfortable because he has so recently been her teacher and mentor, and that she continued to experience emotional aguish to date as a result,” the letter said. Ho reported the allegations to Westview High School principal Tina Zeigler. Zeigler and Brian Morris, the district’s director of human resources, took charge of the investigation, records show.

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Hymes was placed on paid leave pending an investigation, the letter reads. While Hymes was on leave, another former student contacted Ho to report that Hymes made sexual comments to her when she was a student, including about the extent of her sexual activity, on at least one occasion when she was a student “seemed to feign cleaning something off of her buttocks while she was wearing a tight skirt” and after she graduated, invited her to his home. She accepted the invitation, and once she was there, he “repeatedly encouraged her to engage in a game of strip poker,” which she declined, the letter reads. The district’s records indicate a call was made to the child abuse hotline about the allegation during the investigation.

She told investigators another former student was also at Hymes’ home that night with them. Morris interviewed another student who told him that Hymes made inappropriate comments to her at a graduation party, where he made a toast that included the phrase, “If you can’t cum in her, cum on her.” She also reported that she received late-night calls from Hymes asking her questions about her sexual activity, the letter reads.

During the investigation, district officials talked to a separate student who said Hymes also often asked her about the extent of her sexual activity and encouraged her to be more sexually active. She also told another teacher that Hymes had slapped her butt and legs in class, the letter reads.

The memo of the district’s interview with the teacher says he shared the information with Cassen, the principal at the time, and that “the response from Cassen was that Hymes was going through a tough time and does a lot of things for the school.”

The records also show that in addition to the complaints about text messages, parents, coaches, students and staff members found Hymes to be visibly drunk at two Westview High School events in 2013, leading him to resign from his baseball coaching role at the school. Hymes kept teaching at Westview, but moved on to coach baseball at Canyon Crest High School in the San Dieguito School District. He left that position and returned to coaching at Poway Unified at Rancho Bernardo High School in 2016, until his resignation from the district in 2018. Brian Stimpson, a varsity head baseball coach at Westview, told investigators he believed the incidents involving Hymes drinking at school events were reported to Cassen. Stimpson told district investigators he never observed Hymes exhibit any careless behavior at school.

Hymes ultimately resigned before the investigation was complete. Paik said that because the district didn’t complete the investigation, further records in the case would remain confidential.

Hymes’ attorney declined to comment on his behalf.

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing revoked Hymes’ state teaching credential “for misconduct” on Sept. 24, 2019, according to the agency’s website.

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In 2011, Joshua Cottrell resigned after four years of teaching English at Westview High School before Poway Unified completed an investigation into allegations that on at least 20-30 occasions he kissed and hugged a female student who had turned 18. The student told district officials that she had formed a deep emotional bond with Cottrell that eventually led to the physical encounters.

According to a district investigation, the interactions between Cottrell and the former student came after the student’s parents and school administrators warned Cottrell multiple times to maintain professional boundaries, after a string of electronic communications between the two in 2008 and 2009. “His conduct escalated from frequent friendly communications to communicating his romantic feelings for her, to then being involved in a physical relationship with her,” according to district records.

Records show Poway Unified signed a resignation deal with Cottrell in which the district agreed not to mention the misconduct investigation to prospective future employers. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing revoked Cottrell’s state teaching credential “for misconduct” on March 10, 2013, according to the agency’s website.

An education consulting firm that subsequently hired Cottrell told VOSD in 2018 that Poway Unified did not disclose the misconduct, and that it wasn’t aware his teaching credential had been revoked.

Cottrell did not respond to an interview request from Voice of San Diego.

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One year earlier, Ryan Carnell, a former volunteer wrestling coach, admitted to inappropriately touching a 15-year-old Westview student and sending a pornographic photo of himself to another teenage girl.

Carnell was ordered to spend a year and half in jail in 2010, and to register as a sex offender for life.

In February and March 2009, Carnell began sending sexual text messages to the girl, including one with a photograph of his penis accompanied by the message, “Don’t be disappointed,” according to the former student’s testimony in the criminal case against him. She said she met Carnell during her freshman year and the interactions between them turned sexual the following year. She said they exchanged text messages for up to 10 hours a day.

Sharon Raffer, a former director of communications at the district, wrote in a press release in April 2009 that Carnell cleared all background checks and at the time, school officials immediately contacted Child Protective Services and law enforcement as required by state law, and notified all Westview parents about the abuse. Raffer said when the initial sexual misconduct allegations arose, the wrestling season had ended and Carnell was not working at the campus.

Carnell did not respond to an interview request from Voice of San Diego.

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A former Westview student who graduated in 2018 sued the district in January 2019 alleging Michel, a Spanish teacher who taught within the district for 21 years, including 16 at Westview, groped her when she was 16 years old.

The complaint, which she amended in April 2019, says Michel pushed her against his desk in his classroom and grabbed and fondled her breasts in December 2016, causing her to switch homeroom classes and to no longer feel safe at school.

The complaint says Poway Unified knew that Michel “excessively touch (sic) his female students and know or should have known … Michel was attempting to groom female students” and “failed to prevent and tacitly accepted inappropriate behavior at Westview including retention of teachers and/or coaches whose conduct towards young female students was inappropriate.” It claims Poway Unified was negligent in hiring Michel and failed to thoroughly investigate claims against him. Michel and the Poway Unified School District have denied the claims in legal documents.

Paik said a district-level investigation into allegations against Michel began in May 2018. The district found the allegations to be unsubstantiated, she said.

Michel officially retired on June 16, 2018. Michel’s attorney declined an interview request on his behalf.

Paik declined to comment on the case because it’s the subject of litigation but said Michel’s retirement was not disciplinary and that he expressed his intent to retire before the allegations surfaced. He collects $2,910.56 in monthly retirement benefits, according to CalSTRS, the agency that provides retirement benefits for California public school educators.

Concerns Swirl Over Culture, Investigations, Transparency

Students and parents told Voice of San Diego they’re concerned investigations at the district level fall short and fail to include the perspectives of everyone involved.

Clay and her mother told Voice of San Diego she didn’t understand why the district never interviewed her as part of its investigation into the text messages sent by Medlock.

“I was frustrated, upset and confused. How are you doing a high-level investigation without hearing my side of the story? In no way should they have claimed that they did a full investigation,” Clay said.

District officials later spoke with her as part of a separate investigation after her parents reported further concerns, according to records provided to Voice of San Diego by the family.

Paik said the district typically attempts to contact and interview the students affected during an investigation.

“However, if they or their parents decline, in those cases, we cannot force students to participate in the investigation. Additionally, if very specific allegations are presented and those actions are uncontroverted, there may not be a need to interview the student to avoid further discomfort,” she wrote.

She said district officials have taken every allegation reported to them seriously and that they investigate each one thoroughly.

Numerous parents and students also described a “close-knit” culture at Westview – where teachers and administrators are friends and have one another’s backs, particularly beloved teachers at the school like Peterson and Medlock. They worry that dynamic compromises officials’ ability to fairly assess each case. Many said teachers frequently cross normal teacher-student boundaries with students – like texting or messaging them on social media, driving them to and from school or sports practices and inviting them to their homes for gatherings – in an effort to create close relationships and support particularly vulnerable students. Yet, it’s vulnerable students who are most susceptible to grooming and abuse.

In an email, Paik wrote that Poway Unified strives to provide a positive school environment that protects the safety and well-being of its students and expects all adults to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards in their interactions with students inside and outside of school. School staff are mandatory reporters and work closely with law enforcement and Child Protection Services to ensure student safety, she said.

Jennifer Clay said the district should be taking measures to stop grooming behavior and shouldn’t wait until sexual acts actually occur in order to remove teachers from the classroom. She said in the district’s investigations of her daughter’s case, officials seemed to believe the voices of adults over students.

“It shows they’re more concerned over a teacher’s reputation than about protecting students,” she said.

In her online petition, Tsang said district officials’ inaction directly tells young survivors of sexual violence that their experiences don’t matter. Westview and Poway Unified are responsible for Peterson’s actions, she wrote, because officials failed to do anything despite “the glaring evidence.”

Paik told Voice of San Diego in an email she knows there’s a perception that “the school has done nothing” but said Westview staff has been providing lessons around sexual harassment and discrimination to students, “especially when they encounter stressful or traumatic situations” and has emphasized that counselors are available as a confidential resource. She said Zeigler, Westview’s principal, has also sent out messaging to Westview staff and families regarding inappropriate behavior by staff.

But Tsang has more specific action she’d like to see: She’s demanding Westview fire Peterson and Medlock and implement strict no-tolerance policies for staff and faculty who’ve been accused of sexual harassment or assault, including immediate suspension and an investigation of the claims. She and more than 21,900 people who have signed the petition also want the district to develop more intensive hiring and investigative procedures, and better training for staff members and counselors.

Tsang said she met with Zeigler, Morris, the district’s human resources director, and a lawyer representing Poway Unified on June 26. She said those officials told her that if any other students or alumni had inappropriate interactions with Peterson, they should come forward to help with the investigation.

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