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She Was 17. He Was Her 46-Year-Old Teacher. Despite Warning Signs, He Stayed in the Classroom for Years

A former La Costa Canyon High student says that during her senior year, she had a months-long sexual relationship with one of her teachers. The school investigated the teacher at the time, but came up short. When she finally went to the police, six years later, it was too late to build a case. The story of how their connection developed sheds light on how these kinds of abusive sexual relationships can grow in schools.

La Costa Canyon High School

La Costa Canyon High School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In fall 2010, a La Costa Canyon High School teacher was riding his bike through a park when he spotted a student from the school with a fellow teacher, Marc Sandknop.

The teacher wasn’t sure what they were doing but suspected an illicit relationship, so he reported what he saw to school officials, who began an investigation.

The student was Julie. That is not her name, as she asked to share her story using a pseudonym. Julie, now 24, said she was having a sexual relationship with a teacher at the time as a minor.

As a high schooler in Carlsbad, Julie struggled with depression. Her English teacher sophomore year was someone she had turned to for support. She became his teacher’s assistant her junior year and their bond grew.

Their flirtatious relationship turned explicit the summer between her junior and senior year of high school. He was 46.

What transpired in the months and years that followed would initially thrill her, and later traumatize her, as she kept a secret that put her life at risk.

As the affair weighed on her, Julie said part of her wanted to get caught. But when school officials confronted her during her senior year in 2010, they were accusatory, she said. They blamed her for protecting him. Even though it was obvious she was troubled, they did not treat her as a victim but as an accomplice, she recalls.

When the police got involved years later, it was too late. Sandknop lost his job but any illegal actions were washed away because officials determined the statute of limitations had expired.

The story of how their connection developed gives insight into how these kinds of abusive sexual relationships can grow in schools. It also shows how such relationships can slip through the cracks even when school districts investigate them by the book.

Julie declined to name the teacher with whom she had a relationship, but Voice of San Diego determined it was Sandknop using various sexual misconduct records from the San Dieguito Union High School District regarding Sandknop, including a 2010 letter of reprimand, a 2016 letter placing him on paid leave, a letter informing the school board Sandknop was under police investigation following allegations of sexual abuse by a former student, Sandknop’s resignation letter, as well as a claim and settlement between the district and one of Sandknop’s former students who alleged a sexual relationship took place as a student.

The documents all line up with the timing and details of Julie’s account and her experience with a teacher at La Costa Canyon High.

VOSD also confirmed with Carlsbad police that a statutory rape investigation was opened against Sandknop in 2016.

Sandknop, now 54, initially agreed to answer questions by email, but declined after we sent them.

District officials transferred Sandknop from La Costa Canyon High to Carmel Valley Middle School in the fall of 2011, following an investigation into his relationship with a student during Julie’s senior year. He remained in the school system for five more years, until he resigned in March 2016 after a former student – Julie – reported to police he had molested her.

Though Sandknop raised red flags for years, the high school’s investigation came up short. So did the police investigation. Sandknop lost his career, and the district wound up losing some money, but he escaped statutory rape charges, at least in part, because too much time had passed.

Sandknop’s teaching credential – first obtained in 1993 – was revoked at his request “while allegations of misconduct were pending” in September 2016, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing website.

Records obtained from the school district show his interactions with female students at La Costa Canyon High were on the district’s radar long before he resigned.

Warning Signs

In 2005, San Dieguito Union High School District officials received a call from an unidentified woman who said Sandknop “had molested a child in her family and was seen at the movie theater with a graduate of La Costa Canyon High,” according to district records.

The district filed three reports with Child Protective Services following the complaint. Sandknop remained on the job at the south Carlsbad campus without interruption.

“Despite the difficulty in investigating a complaint from an unidentified caller and against an unnamed individual, the District managed to identify the caller, who met in-person with law enforcement and District officials,” wrote Eric Dill, superintendent of the San Dieguito Union High School District, in an email to Voice of San Diego. “The concerns she raised did not involve Sandknop’s position as a teacher, students, or employ of the District, but nonetheless were immediately referred to the appropriate agencies. Ultimately, the evidence did not indicate that Sandknop engaged in wrongdoing.”

Five years later, in 2010, Sandknop again attracted scrutiny after another employee spotted him and a student at a park. That student was Julie.

La Costa Canyon English teacher Matt Cunningham told Voice of San Diego he was biking up a hill near Double Peak Park in San Marcos when he saw Sandknop and a student drive past him in separate cars. When he arrived at the park, they were sitting in the same car.

“It certainly raised my suspicion and I wanted to tell (school administrators) what was going on,” Cunningham said. “In the teacher position you have to remain vigilant and have to be aware this stuff is going on. We are naive to think otherwise.”

District officials interrogated Sandknop and the student.

Dill told Voice of San Diego “both Sandknop and the student denied that Sandknop engaged in any inappropriate and/or sexual conduct.”

Sandknop spent six days on paid leave and received a written warning from school officials. That warning reminded him there had been “a number of reports” about his “relationships with girls who were your recent students, some of whom were players on your girls’ tennis team.” It was written by Bjorn Paige, La Costa Canyon High’s assistant principal at the time.

“In the teacher position you have to remain vigilant and have to be aware this stuff is going on. We are naive to think otherwise.”

“Your closeness to certain female students reinforces the perception that your girlfriends may have been ‘recruited’ while they were your students,” Paige wrote. “You are not to have contact with students outside of campus. … You will not be assigned female student aides. … It is essential that you learn from this experience and that you accept direction and seriously protect your professional reputation, however, any additional incidents of this type will result in further discipline, up to and including dismissal.”

Dill said he could not explain the “number of reports” referenced by Paige, but that the district was not withholding additional reports.

Sandknop remained at La Costa Canyon High the final seven months of the school year and was transferred to Carmel Valley Middle School the following school year.

According to district records, no other sexual misconduct concerns about Sandknop arose until early 2016.

The Beginning

At age 15, a bad breakup and bullying during Julie’s sophomore year at La Costa Canyon High School were especially difficult.

In the depths of depression, Julie contemplated suicide. She confided that to her English teacher, who gave her his personal email to communicate outside of class.

“He kind of advised me through it,” she said. She began sending him some of her writings, and they’d talk about camping and the stars. Then something more began to develop.

“Him being such a great listener, I really felt like he understood me, understood my melancholy, she said. “I started isolating from my friends more and spending more time in his class during lunch.”

Christy Heiskala, a local child abuse and molestation prevention trainer, says schools should not allow employees to spend one-on-one time with students, where intimate relationships can be fostered.

Julie and her teacher began corresponding on private email accounts and shared CDs, movies and books. Some featured stories of older men pursuing younger girls or their students, like “Lolita” and the movie “The Squid and the Whale,” she said.

“We started talking more intimately when I was 16. His intention was to wait until I was 18.”

That plan didn’t last.

“I remember there was one night toward end of junior year. He asked whether I had feelings for him. I said, ‘Yes I do, but I am obviously not going to act on them.’ Because I’d rather have him as a friend and mentor,” she said.

Before she left for a college preparation program in Baltimore the summer between her junior and senior year, they met up and he gave her a hug, she recalls.

While she was away, their communication became more explicit.

We “kind of started talking more in depth about physical desires. He was asking about my sexual experience. Getting to know me on a more intimate level. Just really going heavy,” she said. At the time, “It was definitely something I was comfortable with, but it was obviously weird, because it felt mature and it felt OK and it felt right, I guess.”

Still, fear loomed.

“There were concerns on both of our ends,” she said, about “getting into trouble and someone finding out. He was in a relationship with someone at the time. There was a lot of anxiety.”

Julie said her teacher’s live-in girlfriend was a former student. But getting involved with Julie as a minor would be different. There were legal concerns and he could lose his job.

“It was obvious there was risk involved for him, and that I needed to keep it under wraps,” she said.

When she returned from Baltimore in August before her senior year, “We met up in Cardiff, at a kind of cove in the beach,” she said. They walked down a beach a little further, “Laid down a blanket and sort of talked and watched the sunset,” she said. As they laid together, he held her and “leaned my head up to kiss me.”

As the sun set, “we got really involved and we were making out.”

As they walked back up the path to leave, “I remember him being like, ‘We can’t be together.’ I was like ‘I know,’ but I was really confused,” she said.

After the encounter, she said she “started having grotesque nightmares, replaying it in a more exaggerated or disgusting way.”

She had doubts about taking the relationship further, “But I told myself this is something I have been wanting or said I had been wanting for a really long time. All I wanted was for him to be someone consistent or important in my life.”

They met up again for a walk, this time at the Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad, where they kissed, and she accepted an invitation to his house.

“Even though I had had sexual relationships with people, I hadn’t had penetrative intercourse.” Julie said they had oral sex that day. “I remember being not quite there. Or being a little bit startled at how quickly things were moving.”

Early on her senior year, the pair “consummated the relationship” on the night of a school football game, she said. Rather than go to the game, she went to her teacher’s house while his girlfriend was out of town.

“It was something I had been wanting for a while and felt unequipped or incapable of having. He at least tried to make it as comfortable as possible,” she said.

He later bought her Plan B emergency contraceptive, after taking off the condom, which he said made sex with her too difficult.

From then on, the unprotected sex continued.

“I was afraid of getting pregnant, as well as other things, but he assured me he knew what he was doing,” she said.

As the relationship continued, she ended up telling a couple friends about it. At one point, she was convinced she’d contracted herpes, so her teacher got her medication from the pharmacy as she waited in the car with a friend, she said.

From September to October, she said their contact was nonstop and exciting.

They made new email accounts to reach each other. When they weren’t having sex at his apartment during lunch, his free period or after school, they were emailing or video chatting silently, as she was “performing for him” by stripping and doing other acts.

They were having sex a “minimum of two to three times a week, sometimes multiple times a day, if I could come by after school, or an event,” she said.

During their midday meetings, “We would have sex, even if I was not feeling it at that point. It was the only safe place. Usually he’d make lunch afterward,” she said.

Then, she would go to the nearby CVS and get a chocolate bar, take it back to school “and we’d pretend nothing happened,” she said.

“My entire time was monopolized with him and our situation,” she said. “There wasn’t really any break from it. I started to get really tired from sex,” she said. “It became a chore to see him all the time.”

He was “definitely never violent by physical standards, but by coercion standards, of course,” she said. “At any point I would question him, he had an answer.”

She occasionally raised concerns that he was a predator manipulating her. But she said he would reassure her that she was special and different.

“In bed with him, he’d say, ‘I hope in five years you don’t tell me I’m disgusting or realize how I’m a monster. I know you’re not going to tell anyone now, but don’t tell anyone in the future,’ and I had to promise that,” she said.

She also didn’t like all the secrecy.

“I was feeling kind of guilty” and “I didn’t like sneaking around. I would rather have someone my age and be proud and show off with him.”

In October, she decided she wanted out.

A District Investigation Goes Nowhere

In October 2010, Julie and her teacher met off campus at a park.

She recalls telling him, “I don’t want to do this anymore. You have a girlfriend. You live with her. It’s uncomfortable,” she said. “I remember sitting there and him talking me into staying. I didn’t really want to, but gave in.”

During the discussion, she recognized another teacher biking up the hill near them.

She quickly drove away, but after the teacher passed, she returned. Then they “went back to his place to have sex really, really quickly,” she said. “I didn’t really become aware that anything was going to come of it until Monday, when they brought me in. … I was terrified.”

School staff pulled her out of ceramics class and interrogated her about their relationship and told her to stop protecting him. Julie said it felt like school officials were not trying to protect her. Rather, they were out to get her.

“They were coming at me, saying, ‘We know something happened. Why don’t you tell us?’” she recalls. “It didn’t really feel like they were doing these things with my best interest in mind. It felt like they were doing this to cover their asses and make sure they didn’t have a scandal on their hands.”

Their approach wasn’t effective.

She denied the affair, and alerted the teacher between talks with school officials. They coordinated their stories at his insistence, she said.

In hindsight, Julie believes if school officials had handled the 2010 investigation differently, things might have been exposed sooner.

Dill, the district superintendent, said school administrators “brought her in because they were concerned for her well-being. I’m sorry if she felt the tone was improper, as we genuinely wanted to learn the truth at that time. The assistant principal also followed up with her parents to make sure they were aware of the concern that was reported to them and to give them the opportunity to discuss this with their daughter. ”

Julie recalls returning to class and seeing them cart away her teacher’s work computer to search it for evidence.

“I wanted to get caught, because I was kind of struggling with it myself, but I was also afraid of getting caught because he was all I had. I couldn’t live with the guilt of ruining his life,” she said.

School officials forbade her from seeing or being in a room with him. But their sexual encounters continued – just more discreetly.

Before the investigation, her teacher made it clear their relationship needed to be “super casual” with “no feelings involved. Just purely sexual,” Julie recalled. After the investigation, he started saying he loved her. She wondered if he only said it to keep her from reporting him.

She dropped her English class and took it online instead, which freed up more time with him midday. They had sex about “every other day for upwards of seven months,” from September to May or June her senior year, she said.

After her teacher returned to school after being on paid leave, rumors swirled on campus.

“There was speculation because everyone knew we were really close,” she said. “It felt like ‘You’re the one causing him to lose his job. You’re trouble. Promiscuous. … Walking through school and hearing everyone whisper and eyes on you, it was very much in a ‘Scarlet Letter’ kind of way.”

She said her teacher’s view of her also didn’t help.

He used to refer to a group of male students she spent time with as her “harem of men,” and made it sound like she was a “siren. A kind of beautiful, but damned person who kind of ruins men, therefore he couldn’t resist me, and he couldn’t control his feelings or thoughts or anything,” she said.

Aspects of their relationship would impact her in ways she didn’t initially realize.

As she made college plans in Baltimore, both knew their relationship had an end date. She recalls having their last sexual encounter sometime around prom. He agreed things should end, but they remained in contact intermittently from 2011 to 2015.

College Crises

In college across the country, Julie eagerly tried to move on, but she grappled with the reality that the “only friend I had was a teacher who pretty much abused me.”

She “suffered problems with intimacy because of my trauma and history. It made love very difficult.”

Her experience with him, she said, skewed her identity.

“I felt isolated and felt my youth had been taken from me. I felt too old,” she said.

She also had difficulty identifying who the real “Julie” was.

“I started shaping my interests with his when I was 14 … music, books I read and movies I watched. This identity I made for myself was primarily because of him,” she said. “These things I liked, I didn’t know if it’s because I liked them, or he liked them.”

“The things he was giving me supported the narrative he wanted me to have,” she said, referring to storylines with teacher-student relationships or underage girls.

She feared getting to know her college professors and dealt with an “immense feeling of dread and paranoia that I was going to seduce them and get myself into that situation again, because I was this succubus. … I thought this was a pattern of mine and this was a problem with me.”

Keeping the secret had consequences for her personally.

“I made a promise all those years ago I wouldn’t say anything. I didn’t want to go back on my word. I was feeling like there was constantly a barrier between myself and other people,” she said. “[My] parents knew I had trauma, but didn’t know the details. They speculated, but didn’t know how far things went with him and I. The secret started to really eat away at me.”

During college, she occasionally asked her high school teacher for relationship advice. When she visited home, they met to catch up over coffee. After she went through a messy breakup, she said she reached a “breaking point” and again contemplated suicide.

She reached out to him, indicating she wanted to tell someone what happened, or report him to the police. She recalls he said he was expecting a child and it wouldn’t be fair to punish him now.

After graduating, toward the end of 2015, Julie was hospitalized for an eating disorder at an inpatient facility on the East Coast. As she deteriorated, she began throwing up every day. She feared she would get sent to the hospital, so they could insert a feeding tube to keep her alive.

She eventually relocated to a treatment program in San Diego and told the nurses what had happened with her high school teacher. She also told her mom. “She was supportive,” and recognized “This is something I need to process,” Julie said.

The nurses told her they would need to file a police report but gave Julie the chance to report it herself. She contacted Carlsbad police. Though she had mixed feelings about it, she wanted to see something done.

She also questioned the school district’s decision to transfer him to a middle school after they investigated their relationship in fall 2010.

“Don’t just give him a warning but look the other way. They just transferred him to a middle school. I understand that is not his target age group, but it just gets him there earlier,” she said.

“At each step of this case, the district promptly investigated the concerns, took corrective action commensurate with the investigative findings and referred reports appropriately to outside agencies,” Dill, the school district superintendent, told VOSD.

“Generally speaking, the steps the District can take following an investigation of allegations employee misconduct depend on many factors, which include the nature and severity of the charges and the evidence gathered during the investigation. Student safety is always the District’s primary focus,” Dill said. “All teachers attend annual Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act and regular sexual harassment prevention trainings.”

After the administration admonished him for his “closeness to certain female students,” he taught students for another five years.

But that wasn’t the only investigation that would come up empty. Julie’s report to the police in 2016 didn’t end the way she thought it would.

A Police Investigation and a Settlement

Though Julie declined to name the teacher she was involved with to VOSD, she said she reported him to police in 2016. San Dieguito Union High School District records show a former student told Carlsbad police in early 2016 that Sandknop had molested her as a student.

Sandknop was placed on paid leave Feb. 19, 2016, and abruptly resigned two weeks later.

The San Dieguito school board was informed just days before the resignation that a police investigation was underway.

“Mr. Sandknop admitted to the police he had a relationship with Ms. (redacted), but due to the statute of limitations the District Attorney has decided not to pursue criminal charges,” Torrie Norton, San Dieguito Union High School District’s associate superintendent of human resources, wrote the school board on Feb. 23, 2016. “We will be initiating a thorough investigation into her allegations and possible other instances of molestation and sexual abuse by Mr. Sandknop.”

After the administration admonished him for his “closeness to certain female students,” he taught students for another five years.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said there is no record the 2016 case against Sandknop was ever submitted for review. But a Carlsbad Police Department spokeswoman said the district attorney’s office was consulted, perhaps less formally.

“At the time of report, we conducted a comprehensive investigation which included a consultation with the District Attorney’s Office and found that the statute of limitations for this crime had expired. The 261.5(c) (statutory rape) crime in question was, according to the California Penal Code, a misdemeanor which means the statute of limitations was one year from the time of the incident,” Carlsbad police spokeswoman Jodee Reyes wrote in an email.

Carlsbad police declined to provide records of the report or investigation, citing the juvenile record exemption.

Unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, which carry different limits for how much time can lapse between the incident and charges being filed. Felony offenses generally need to be reported within three years and can result in fines, years in prison and registration as a sex offender. When determining how to prosecute statutory rape, the ages of the victim and offender are often considered. Sandknop was roughly 30 years older than Julie. There can also be greater penalties for those in positions of authority, like teachers, coaches and priests.

Julie reported the sexual relationship with her teacher less than five years after it ended, but she was told that was too long.

One of the big problems with the case centered on the issue of consent.

“Without a physical lack of consent, we can’t do anything about it,” Julie recalls being told. “Basically, if he didn’t physically force me, then they couldn’t do anything about it. But it wasn’t consensual, really.”

Hearing officials weren’t going to press charges was hard for her to process.

“It’s taken me this long to get this place, and the most you can do is leave it there? He loses his job. You hope he doesn’t do it again. I felt like they were not looking at the full picture,” she said. “I was a little relieved, because that (testifying) can be hell itself … but at same time it felt really fucked up.”

With no police action, in May 2016 San Dieguito school district officials received a claim alleging Sandknop “instituted and maintained a highly damaging sexual and emotionally manipulative relationship with (a student) while she was a minor and L.C.C.H.S. student.” School and district employees “knew or should have known about his relationships with female students,” it said.

The district settled the claim in September 2017 and paid $10,000 to the former student, who promised not to sue the school district, the settlement shows.

Moving Forward

Since she was told her underage consent is what hindered criminal charges, Julie’s understanding of consent has “been a very difficult thing to process.”

Consensual sex between people “47 and 17 – that’s wild,” she said. “Why is this teacher pursuing a relationship with somebody who is obviously a child? … I know we had a very ‘mature’ relationship, and maybe when you’re around teenagers all the time, your perspective gets skewed. But I don’t support it.”

“I didn’t understand the gravity of everything,” she said. “My understanding of the world is still so much more limited than his. … He had 30 years of life before me … he had been married, he had been in college. He had figured things out. He had a career. He had already lived half his life. I was just barely at the age where I was starting to reach adult life.”

In February 2016, Julie finished her medical treatment and returned to the East Coast.

Julie said she now feels “more at peace with things. I’ve accepted my unique history. … I’m more healed, but it’s still there. It’s not something that’s gone away.”

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