School Officials Who Failed to Act on Report of Sexual Abuse Say it Went to Spam Folder - Voice of San Diego

Education UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

School Officials Who Failed to Act on Report of Sexual Abuse Say it Went to Spam Folder

In 2016, a volunteer in Mar Vista High’s JROTC program emailed seven Sweetwater Union High School District administrators with evidence that an instructor was sexually abusing a student. He received no response, though everyone on the email was mandated by state law to report such incidents to police. Officials now say the message landed in their spam folders.

Mar Vista High School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In March 2016, Randy Vazquez sent an alarming email to seven Sweetwater Union High School district administrators.

The subject line was “INCIDENT AT MAR VISTA HIGH/NJROTC WITH INSTRUCTOR AND STUDENT” and included graphic descriptions of sexual abuse of a 17-year-old girl in the program by the class’s substitute instructor, Martin Gallegos.

Vazquez, who was a volunteer in Mar Vista High School’s Navy Junior ROTC program, told Voice of San Diego he compiled evidence of the relationship between Gallegos and the student, and alerted his superiors. He says he thought the details of the inappropriate relationship would move administrators to take action and report the situation to authorities.

Voice of San Diego is identifying the student as Jane Roe, her pseudonym in court documents, because she is a victim of sexual abuse.

“Near the end of February-beginning of March timeframe, [the student] texted me, telling me that she has kissed 1stSgt and that there was inappropriate touching involved on both parties. When I told her I thought she was joking with me, she had sent me a screenshot of their conversation after they were together. At this point, I started gathering information about the relationship between [the student] and 1stSgt,” the email reads.

Vazquez attached text messages between Roe and Vazquez to the email, in which Roe detailed the sexual abuse, as well as a screenshot of an inappropriate conversation between Roe and Gallegos that Roe sent to Vazquez.

But he never received a response to his message, nor heard of a report made to police or Child Welfare Services.

“I gave them the opportunity to do something, and they didn’t do it,” Vazquez said. Vazquez was not employed by the district or subject to mandated child abuse reporting laws at the time.

All of the educators who received the email, however, were required by state law to report suspected child abuse to police or Child Welfare Services.

Now, a district spokesperson says none of the administrators listed on the email responded to Vazquez’s complaint because the email landed in their spam boxes.

Manny Rubio, the spokesman for Sweetwater Union, says none of those educators – Chief Compliance Officer Thomas Glover, Director of Student Support Services Steven Lizarraga, Mar Vista High School Principal Juan Gonzalez and assistant principals Ruben Baeza, David Mitrovich, Monica Raczkowski and Kevin Willard – ever actually saw the warning or knew of the sexual abuse.

Vazquez sent the email on March 30, 2016. When nothing happened, the student reported the abuse to police herself nine days later, Vazquez told Voice of San Diego.

Roe later sued the Sweetwater Union High School District, claiming it negligently hired and retained Gallegos. Sweetwater settled that case last year, and agreed to pay Roe more than $2 million. Gallegos pleaded guilty to statutory rape in 2016.

The fact that the district never read or acted on Vazquez’s warning demonstrates how failure to comply with state mandated reporting laws can leave students vulnerable to harm by predatory teachers.

♦♦♦

Vazquez volunteered in the JROTC program at Mar Vista High School during the 2015-2016 school year.

In that role, he got to know the students and instructors in the program, including Gallegos and Roe, he said.

Vazquez said in fall 2015, he suspected an inappropriate relationship was forming between Gallegos and Roe. So he decided to ask Roe about their interactions. When Roe told him about the details of the relationship, which included sexual contact, Vazquez confronted Gallegos, who “had told (him) that (Roe) had a crush on (Gallegos), that she would get over it, but nothing more,” Vazquez recalled.

When he watched the relationship turn physical, Vazquez decided to tell his superiors in the JROTC program, Master Chiefs Enrique “Rik” Alberto and John Strait, both of whom were employed by Sweetwater Union High School District and certified by the Naval Service Training Command of the U.S. Navy. He says they turned a blind eye to his complaints and told him to let an assistant principal handle it.

Alberto and Strait did not respond to requests for comment.

In the email to school administrators, Vazquez writes that he reported the abuse to multiple parties at Mar Vista High School before alerting administration, but was ignored.

Vazquez said that after his report was brushed off, he decided to gather statements and research about Gallegos’s misconduct. Roe detailed the abuse to Vazquez over text messages.

“Following all this information being told to me, I concluded to make this statement and to go outside of the NJROTC to ensure that this situation is looked into,” the email reads.

Vazquez now says he wants to hold administrators and school employees accountable for not taking action.

“I feel guilt for not saying something sooner,” Vazquez told VOSD. “No one acted. Strait just wanted a smooth retirement, he shut his ears to what happened and Alberto encouraged the bad behavior but told (Gallegos) to be careful. Everyone got off too easy.”

Alberto and Strait left the program that school year. Alberto’s teaching credential was revoked for misconduct by the state teacher credentialing agency last year. It’s unclear whether the behavior that led to his credential being revoked is related to Roe.

Roe’s lawsuit against the district also details Vazquez’s attempt to notify district employees:

“The ROTC Volunteer compiled the text messages both he and (Roe)’s friend had exchanged with (Roe) regarding the sexual abuse by (Gallegos) and presented the information separately to ROTC instructors Master Chief Enrique Alberto and Master Chief John Strait. The ROTC volunteer was told to leave it alone and that (Gallegos) would handle the situation with an assistant principal … The ROTC volunteer was unsatisfied with this response and on March 24, 2016 he prepared a signed statement regarding his awareness of the sexual abuse of (Roe) by (Gallegos) and presented the statement to Mar Vista High School. This statement included several pages of text messages.”

♦♦♦

Each of the employees on the receiving end of the email, with the exception of Lizarraga, continues to work for the Sweetwater Union High School District in various capacities.

Glover is now the assistant superintendent of human resources for the district. Gonzalez is the principal at National City Middle School. Baez is an assistant principal at Mar Vista High School. Mitrovich teaches physical education at Eastlake Middle School, and said he plans to retire at the end of the school year. Raczkowski is the community in schools coordinator at Mar Vista High School. Willard is an assistant principal at San Ysidro High School.

Raczkowski, assistant principal at Mar Vista High School, said she is aware of the email in question, but that it was blocked by the district’s spam filter.

“After I returned to work from spring intersession, I learned that there was an email sent to us. I was able then to do a search through the spam filter system and found record of it being blocked,” she told VOSD in an email. “By that point in time, action had already been taken on the case.”

Mitrovich, physical education teacher at Eastlake Middle School, said he does not recall receiving the email, but that typically the response to a complaint like Vazquez’s email would not fall on an assistant principal’s shoulders. He said that responsibility usually lies with district administrators and school principals.

Willard said the district’s Barracuda spam blocker prevented the message from reaching his email inbox, but remembers a printed copy of the email surfacing on campus.

“If any one of us would’ve gotten it we would’ve handled it,” he said. He said he headed two other internal sexual misconduct investigations at Mar Vista High School that involved district employees that year.

Baez, Glover, Gonzalez and Lizarraga did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Voice of San Diego.

Rubio, the district spokesman, said the district would not disclose whether an internal investigation into the allegations against Gallegos took place, citing attorney-client privilege.

He says it’s important to note that the district immediately fired Gallegos when law enforcement was alerted, which does not always happen in educator child-abuse cases.

♦♦♦

On paper, educators who fail to follow state law regarding mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse can be punished by up to six months in jail, a fine up to $1,000 or both.

In reality, though, no failure to report suspected child abuse complaints have been brought to the district attorney’s office or city attorney’s office since at least 2002, the furthest dated records that the city could locate, said San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan.

As a result, no cases involving a failure to abide by mandatory reporting rules has been prosecuted in San Diego County, Stephan said.

San Diego is not alone in its lack of prosecution of failure-to-report cases. Other regions in California, like Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernadino and Riverside counties prosecuted fewer than a dozen of these cases between 2012 to 2017, according to the San Bernardino Sun.

As long as that pattern persists, school districts and employees who fail to read or act on reports of child abuse, like Sweetwater Union High School District officials did in Roe’s case, won’t be held responsible.

“I could have just thrown these texts away. I was the only one who had anything,” Vazquez said. “They thought I was going to go quietly as well.”

Show Comments
Loading

We’re striving for the best possible discussion and may delete comments using our editorial judgment. All comments containing links will be reviewed by VOSD staff before they are published.
Read our full comment policy.
For longer comments, consider submitting an op-ed to Voice of San Diego.
Read the guidelines here.

We have recently updated our commenting system. If you are unable to submit a comment, please clear the cache and cookies in your browser, or use a private browsing window. Click here for detailed instructions.