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Poway Teachers Ousted for Relationships With Students Kept Working in Education

Poway Unified agreed not to mention to future employers that two high school teachers at separate schools had been forced out for having romantic relationships with students. Their cases reveal how district decisions, and a slow-moving state system, can leave future employers largely in the dark, allowing those ousted for misconduct to continue working with youth.

Westview Poway

Westview High School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Two Poway Unified School District teachers who lost their teaching credentials for sexual misconduct with students kept working in the education field thanks in part to resignation deals that forbid the district from revealing the misconduct to prospective future employers.

Their cases reveal how local school district decisions, coupled with the state’s slow-moving educator misconduct reporting system, can leave future employers largely in the dark, allowing those ousted for misconduct to continue working with youth.

Records obtained by Voice of San Diego as part of an ongoing investigation show the Poway district signed confidential resignation deals with two men who worked at different schools and whose alleged misconduct took place years apart – but whose cases have some striking similarities.

Westview High School English and philosophy teacher Joshua Cottrell resigned in 2011; Del Norte High School advanced psychology, English and social studies teacher David Wayne Williams resigned in 2016.

Poway investigated both teachers for sexual relationships with female students who had turned 18 their senior year. Both students eventually told district officials rendezvous with the men occurred in their classrooms after forming deep emotional bonds over life struggles.

Neither Cottrell, now 43, nor Williams, now 36, responded to repeated requests for an interview.

Cottrell’s teaching credential was revoked in 2013 and Williams’ was revoked in March 2018, “because of misconduct,” according to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing website.

The revocations came years after the pair landed jobs working for private educational firms, shortly after leaving the classroom.

Williams resigned from Del Norte High in November 2016 and found work in March 2017 at the OtterCares Foundation, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Until recently, an online OtterCares biography listed Williams as the impact and education director and touted his 10-plus years of teaching experience, as well as his “huge heart for students.” The bio said he worked on Project Heart, a philanthropy-focused education curriculum for students grades four to 12.

On Aug. 27, OtterCares’ attorney Teresa Nugent declined to answer any questions about Williams’ work, declined to say whether the foundation did a reference check with Poway Unified before hiring him and declined to say whether the organization was aware his teaching credential was revoked for misconduct.

As of Aug. 31, Williams’ biography is no longer on the OtterCares webpage. OtterCares Executive Director Linda Crume did not respond to inquiries asking whether Williams was still employed.

Cottrell, a Poway High graduate himself, left Westview High in June 2011 after spending several months on paid leave and began working as a learning consultant for Cengage Learning in August 2011, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Cottrell and others were credited in a 2016 college sexuality textbook as consultants “who helped focus our understanding of the needs of sexuality instructors and professors.”

Cengage officials told Voice of San Diego they do thorough background checks on all employees, which includes confirmation of past employers, as well as a criminal record and nationwide sex offender registry check.

“Mr. Cottrell works in our higher education business as a customer success manager who assists faculty with using our digital products and services, and students with buying and using our digital products,” wrote Susan Aspey, senior vice president of public affairs for Cengage, in an email.

Aspey said Poway did not disclose the misconduct investigation and Cengage was not aware of his 2013 credential revocation.

Poway Unified has purchased textbook curriculum from Cengage for sports medicine, TV production and floral classes, and received two grants from OtterCares since 2017, according to district officials.

District spokeswoman Christine Paik said staff is not aware of any work performed for the district by Williams or Cottrell through the firms, but wrote, “if the District was ever made aware that either would be working with the District as a consultant, the District would insist on having them removed from the account.”

‘That Process Can Get Lengthy’

It took the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing nearly 21 months to revoke Cottrell’s credential, and 16 months to revoke Williams’ credential after receiving misconduct reports from Poway. Commission spokesman Joshua Speaks declined to comment on their specific cases.

But in general, Speaks said in an email investigators take time reviewing and gathering witness statements, locating other potential victims, and may need to request other official documents.

“The more serious the charges, the more important it is to ensure that the case is as airtight as possible,” he wrote. Then educators may respond to the charges, and hearings are held by a commission committee and later the full commission to decide whether to take disciplinary action. “Even without further appeals, that process can get lengthy.”

A report released earlier this year by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said the median time spent by the commission investigating teacher misconduct was 414 days.

During the commission’s slow-moving process, the public is unaware educators are under investigation. Only final actions are posted to the commission’s public educator license portal, and Speaks said state law would have to change in order for the commission to provide public notice an educator’s credential is under review or being investigated.

The lag time between misconduct reports and disciplinary action by the credentialing commission can keep those accused of misconduct in front of kids in the private or public sector.

For example, show choir director Anthony Atienza went to work for Lakeside public schools this year after leaving Chula Vista High on the heels of a district sexual harassment investigation that found his misconduct “severe and pervasive.” Atienza’s credential remains valid while a commission investigation is underway, records show.

“There is a concern any time an educator is under suspicion and still in the classroom, and the Commission shares that concern. However, the state has attempted to balance child safety with due process for the educator,” Speaks wrote. He noted that educators are automatically suspended in the case of “serious” charges, such as certain felonies.

School districts regularly opt to avoid a sometimes lengthy and costly termination process where educators can appeal the decision repeatedly by agreeing to deals in which the educator resigns, and the district agrees not to disclose their misconduct to future employers. Such was the case in Chula Vista with Atienza, and Poway, with Williams and Cottrell.

In the case of Williams and Cottrell, district spokeswoman Paik wrote “it was determined that the cases were not criminal, although the District considered the alleged conduct to be highly inappropriate. By accepting more immediate resignations, we were able to remove them from the classroom and forward the investigation and evidence that was gathered immediately to the CTC (commission), which revoked their licenses. It is up to each employer to do their due diligence during their hiring process, including any reference checks.”

In the Williams case, the Poway district did not complete the investigation and “responses to prospective employers regarding the allegations could lead to potential defamation liability,” Paik wrote.

Paik initially said “any future employers” can get additional information about actions eventually taken by the credentialing commission months or years later, but that’s not the case for non-school employers like OtterCares and Cengage.

Private education firms, as well as youth organizations like sports leagues and youth theaters, get no more information from the commission than the public notice posted online. Schools, on the other hand, can get details about the misconduct that led to the revocation by supplying an educator’s date of birth and Social Security number, commission officials said.

Speaks acknowledged the limits on information provided to non-school employers, including those involving youth, is “a potential issue of concern.”

“Our hope would be that knowledge of an action against an educator’s credential might trigger them to pursue the information through parties who aren’t subject to such strict confidentiality requirements, such as former employers. And if the discipline is the result of criminal activity, those records are typically public as well,” Speaks wrote.

In other words, Speaks advises non-school employers to file public records requests with school districts and law enforcement agencies to try to piece together what happened to cause the revocation — a process Voice of San Diego has found can take months and may require legal action in court.

‘What Was Going on Between Us Was Not Right’

Both Williams and Cottrell formed bonds with female students who confided in and eventually leaned on the men for support, district records show.

The student with whom Williams had a relationship — a 2015 graduate — told the principal he “helped me through the darkest time in my life” as she dealt with family problems, and wrote in an October 2016 declaration he “became my primary source of counseling and guidance.” She said Williams also shared marital problems with her.

Cottrell told a district-hired investigator he became “sort of a mentor” for a 2010 graduate he first met as a sophomore in his class. He acknowledged their bond grew into a romance her senior year, a 67-page investigative report says. The student later told the district investigator they got too close “and agreed that it may have been because of the deep emotional subjects they spoke about.”

Poway district officials declined to release the investigative report compiled in Williams’ case, saying it was never finalized and is still protected by attorney-client privilege. Williams agreed to resign rather than be interviewed by Poway officials, said Paik, the district spokeswoman.

But other district records show his November 2016 departure followed reports he’d been in a relationship with a Del Norte High student. Two former classmates reported the relationship to school officials in fall 2016, spurring the investigation.

“Leading up to the end of my senior year, I understood that my friendship and relationship with Mr. Williams was progressing both emotionally and romantically. Mr. Williams made comments to me clearly indicating that he was physically attracted to me,” the Del Norte High graduate involved with Williams reported in the declaration.

She claimed Williams on one occasion encouraged her to masturbate, and said, “Try that out tonight and let me know how that goes.”

Early on, the pair agreed “what was going on between us was not right,” but “Mr. Williams thereafter made a comment about how pretty I looked, and instructed me to follow him. He led me into a neighboring teacher’s classroom where we had a longer kiss.”

She reported their touching escalated from hugging to kissing to groping in the classroom.

The 2015 graduate said they first had intercourse around her graduation, and their relationship continued into the summer and the following year, with Williams creating a Gmail account for them to communicate.

In September 2016, Williams told her “there was a rumor that he had a sexual relationship with me and another former student,” according to the declaration. “Mr. Williams and I discussed the possible repercussions of our relationship on his family and career as a teacher and I told him that I would deny that any sexual activity occurred.”

She said Williams then “asked that I destroy any evidence of our relationship,” so she ripped pages from her journal and demanded friends destroy all communications she had sent them about Williams.

The graduate received a call from Del Norte High’s principal, Greg Mizel, around Sept. 22, 2016, and confirmed she had a sexual relationship with Williams. Later that month and again in October 2016, she met with Mizel and an attorney for the school district for interviews, district records show.

Then, in November 2016, Williams resigned and Poway Unified officials agreed to “immediately cease any and all efforts to investigate, discipline, or dismiss” Williams.

A Teacher Breaks His Promise Not ‘to Cross Any Line’

More than five years earlier, Cottrell left his teaching job at Westview High under similar circumstances.

Cottrell, however, did not heed multiple warnings from school officials and parents who were concerned about his interactions with their daughter, who was a student in his class her sophomore year in 2007-08.

That first year, the district’s investigation says Cottrell expressed concern about the student’s wellbeing in an email to a female colleague after she showed up stressed “to the point of tears.” Shortly thereafter, the student told her female teacher, “If you really knew me you would know I’m in love with Mr. Cottrell.”

The teacher told Cottrell about the declaration. Cottrell replied via email and “explained that he was aware that (she) had taken a liking to him,” and asked whether the attachment “was nothing more than just a ‘crush’ which would fade overtime.” His colleague surmised it was.

Cottrell continued spending time with the student, and began communicating outside the classroom via text and emails. He also had the student and a friend babysit his children twice.

By August 2008, their communications caught the attention of the student’s parents, who were monitoring her emails, the district’s investigation says.

Though some messages consisted of “friendly bantering,” the parent wrote Cottrell saying there were also “times when you [Mr. Cottrell] are stepping on the line (being an older male teacher), and this makes us very uncomfortable.” The parent added, “the frequency and closeness of the conversations is not appropriate for a student/teacher relationship. Certainly any other faculty member would agree.”

The parent said they didn’t want to tell their daughter they were monitoring her emails, so they asked Cottrell “to keep his friendship ‘at a professional level’ and that they would leave it up to him as to how to control the situation.”

Cottrell responded the same day, and acknowledged he’d “stepped over the boundaries” and said he’d limit his communication to within the school and “to the best of my ability in the presence of others.”

But their communications outside school continued, and by January 2009, Cottrell was again emailed by one of her parents with a warning they would report the problem to his bosses if he didn’t stop. Cottrell emailed an apology indicating no intervention was necessary, adding, “please know that I do not intend to cross any line with your daughter,” the investigative report says.

According to the investigator, school administrators weren’t notified of the parent’s frustrations until March 2009. The principal at the time, Dawn Kastner, made extra classroom visits to see which students were hanging out during lunchtime, and spoke briefly to Cottrell about “having clear boundaries.”

The assistant principal also met with Cottrell about “proper student interactions generally and the ‘appearance of impropriety,’” the investigator’s report says. She also instructed him to not be alone with the student, or any other students, but said meeting with groups of students was OK.

The assistant principal also told Cottrell to stop communicating with the student outside of class via email or text, as requested by the parents, and Cottrell agreed, according to district records.

The student’s lunchtime visits continued her senior year, and her and Cottrell began meeting during his prep period, which was also her free period on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Things became physical in January 2010, after she turned 18 but before she graduated. The district’s investigator concluded Cottrell and the student had kissed 20 to 30 times before graduation, most often in his classroom though the pair also took a walk near Torrey Pines High and visited Cottrell’s alma mater Point Loma Nazarene University. He found Cottrell’s claims she visited “infrequently” and that the “doors were always open” when they kissed “not credible.”

The student graduated in 2010, but their relationship continued. The romance came to light in August 2010 when her father decided to take one of her suitcases home from the airport to repack it to avoid an airline overweight bag surcharge. When he did so, he discovered a series of letters from Cottrell and “was disturbed” by them, the investigative report says.

Her dad, who helped her move into her college dorm a few days later, also found a love letter she wrote on her computer. Her parents reached out to another teacher at the school first, then Kastner, the principal, in October 2010. They alleged the affair began before she turned 18, and said Cottrell had used school phones to contact their daughter.

The principal alerted the district and Cottrell was called in for an interview in early November. At first, Cottrell said she was only a “good friend,” according to the investigative report. By the end of the meeting, Cottrell was placed on paid leave. At the time, Cottrell was serving as chair of the school’s humanities department, assistant varsity soccer coach and adviser for the philosophy club.

Cottrell reportedly admitted to using the school computer to access Gmail and Skype and used school phones to communicate with the student after she left for college, the district’s report says.

“Mr. Cottrell committed severe breaches of both ethical responsibilities and professional duties beginning just after the start of (redacted) senior year, when she was still a minor,” the investigator wrote. “Sadly, it is likely not a coincidence that Mr. Cottrell chose as his romantic interest an introspective, quiet girl, who was not likely going to tell anybody about what was occurring. Mr. Cottrell obviously would not have wanted anyone, whether at school or in his home life, to discover this secret relationship.”

The investigation also appeared to clear administrators of responsibility, indicating, “It was not reasonable for any school staff member or administrator to suspect a romantic relationship during (the student’s) senior year. … There is no credible evidence that they should have known what was occurring and stopped it.”

Though the student’s father told the investigator he felt the principal “Ms. Kastner ‘had blown us off during our meeting’ in that she said that ‘he is a popular guy,’” during their March 2009 meeting.

The investigation noted Cottrell was beloved by school administrators, who told the investigator he’s “one of the best teachers they have ever seen. He is also highly popular with the students.”

Kastner told the investigator “that the damage to her school with Mr. Cottrell being out on leave is ‘profound,’” and said it would be “’devastating to the school’ if he were to leave permanently,” according to the report.

Several months later, Cottrell agreed to resign effective June 30, 2011, and the “District agrees not to process any internal disciplinary charges against Cottrell,” the agreement says.

Making Boundaries Clear

Paik, the Poway district spokeswoman, said all employees are required by law to complete annual child abuse training that includes sexual abuse.

Beyond that, though, district principals “have also been doing a lot of work with their staffs to review appropriate professional boundaries between teachers and students. For example, at our high schools, they have held staff and coach trainings specifically on appropriate communication and relationships, including via texting and social media,” Paik wrote in an email.

Paik also added the district’s newer administration is working to revise board policies, “including language that conveys the expectations for professional ethics and conduct. Although we have always taken sexual misconduct concerns seriously, we strive to continue to implement best practices and revise procedures in an effort to be proactive and prevent these instances.”

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