Southwestern Officials Agreed to Keep Quiet About Professor Who Had Trove of Nude Student Photos, Sex Videos - Voice of San Diego

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Southwestern Officials Agreed to Keep Quiet About Professor Who Had Trove of Nude Student Photos, Sex Videos

Investigators looking into a Title IX complaint against a Southwestern College professor made a shocking find: a trove of nude photos of him and other students, plus videos of him having sex with a student in his office and of him masturbating. He was allowed to quietly resign, and Southwestern officials agreed not to mention the findings to prospective employers.

Southwestern College / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

This post has been updated.

A Southwestern College student said she received her first nude photo from her former biology professor, John Tolli, around midnight in 2015, and when he asked her to reciprocate, she replied that it was late. She would later tell a private investigator hired by the college that she awoke the next morning to another message — an apology, from the professor, for getting carried away.

Things got far more carried away from there, though: The exchange kicked off a six-month affair.

A year and a half after it ended, the student filed a Title IX complaint with the college. Though she said their sexual encounters — all of which happened in Tolli’s office on the Southwestern campus — had been consensual, she also told an investigator that she’d felt preyed on by his status, then pressured to stay quiet. She shared with the investigator an email in which Tolli had told her that a complaint to the college would have no merit, so “save yourself the embarrassment.”

That kicked off a probe that soon led school officials to a stunning find: Tolli’s work computer contained a trove of nude photos of himself and other students, plus videos of him having sex with a student and videos of him masturbating, according to investigation documents obtained by Voice of San Diego following a public records request.

The investigator appears to have been so overwhelmed by the discovery that at one point she enlisted the former student to look over sexually graphic photos Tolli had stored on his computer of other women to see if she could help identify potential victims. (She couldn’t.)

In the end, the Titan Group — the private firm hired by the college to conduct the investigation — in 2017 sustained all 12 allegations against Tolli involving two students, including that he used his position to manipulate his former student into having sex, engaged in “intimidation” by directing her to remain silent about the affair, engaged in and photographed sex acts on district property and used a district computer to view and send pornography, according to investigative documents.

Despite those findings, Southwestern College let Tolli quietly resign in June 2018 and agreed not to tell prospective employers about the investigation, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by Voice of San Diego.

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Tolli and the student had four sexual encounters in his office from June 2015 to January 2016, according to the Titan Group report. They only had sex during office hours, sometimes using an air mattress.

She said her apprehension about the affair grew over time.

She also said she feared that Tolli would release nude photos that she’d sent him over the course of their relationship, and she worried about an offhand comment he’d made suggesting his superior knew about the sexual encounters in the office but didn’t care so long as he did his job.

Tolli ended the affair in January 2016. The student did not handle the news well.

According to the report, she vandalized a school bathroom wall, writing, “Dr. John Tolli fucks students in his office,” and provided his private email address. Campus police told Tolli about the graffiti, but said they didn’t know who’d done it. She told an investigator that Tolli had threatened to reveal her as the person who’d tagged the bathroom if she reported him for their relationship. She also contacted Tolli’s wife to tell her about the affair, according to the report.

When the woman filed a Title IX complaint in 2017 — by that time she was no longer a student at the school — she was initially hesitant to identify Tolli by name and told the college president she was afraid of being portrayed as “the bad guy.” Title IX is a federal civil rights law intended to protect people from gender discrimination and sexual misconduct in educational settings.

Tolli was placed on paid administrative leave and his district-issued computer was seized. Investigators found numerous pornographic photos and videos of himself and other women on the desktop.

He declined to be interviewed for this story.

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As the investigation quickly revealed, the former student was not the only person who’d had sexual encounters with Tolli before his 2018 resignation.

The scope of the investigation broadened following the findings on Tolli’s computer. The myriad pornographic photos and videos expanded the picture that had already been illustrated by the first student’s testimony. A second student was identified, according to the report, but she declined to cooperate with the investigation. The lead investigator wrote that with the amount of evidence found on Tolli’s computer, the second student’s testimony was not needed to confirm the relationship.

According to the report, there are still unidentified women who had sexual encounters in Tolli’s office.

In an interview with the investigator, Tolli denied that he’d ever intimidated a student into having sex and disagreed that his sexual encounters with his former students might have been inappropriate. But he said he regretted some of his behavior and wouldn’t do it again.

Tolli disputed some other claims, according to the investigation. He said he was not misusing his authority since the student who initiated the investigation was no longer a student of his when their affair began. He also told the investigator he never sent nude photos to coerce her into sex, and said the student only brought up that she felt manipulated after he ended the relationship.

“Professor Tolli said his behavior did not demonstrate that he was a bad teacher, it reflects that he is a bad husband,” the report reads.

The investigator, however, concluded that Tolli’s “blatant abuse” of his college-owned computer — where he’d stored pornographic material of himself and students — was highly inappropriate. She wrote that the masturbation videos, which Tolli initially denied filming, were “highly offensive and egregious conduct.”

“His actions have exposed his employer (SWCCD) to substantial risk and liability and creates a negative retention issue,” the investigator wrote. “Moreover, his actions also created a predatory educational environment for these current and past student(s).”

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Tolli is no longer allowed to work for the Southwestern College district, according to the separation agreement he struck with the college on March 30, 2018. Details of the investigation were not mentioned in the agreement. Instead, it says simply that a “dispute had arisen” regarding Tolli’s employment. As part of the agreement, Southwestern promised to provide a “neutral employment reference letter” upon request that cites his hiring date, last salary and job title. His resignation was effective June 30, 2018.

In a statement this week, Southwestern College President Kindred Murillo said the college accepted Tolli’s resignation because it was “the best solution [given] the circumstance.” She also said she was concerned about maintaining and respecting Tolli’s and the students’ privacy.

Tolli is now an instructional lab tech at San Diego City College, said Jack Beresford, a spokesman for the school. He was hired June 1, 2018.

Obtaining information about Tolli’s resignation from Southwestern took two years.

Southwestern College’s student newspaper, The Sun, filed numerous public records requests seeking investigative documents tied to Tolli, all of which were initially denied by the college. Southwestern officials argued at the time that the documents would not serve a public interest.

The college only reversed course and disclosed the documents after legal intervention by Felix Tinkov, an attorney who represents Voice of San Diego.

“Given the continued media interest in the matter, we have determined that it is in the college’s best interest to provide it with the hope that the information will be responsibly [handled],” Murillo said.

Employees of the district are expected to abide by its Code of Professional Ethics to promote student success, Murillo said, which includes avoiding conflicts of interest or the “appearance of impropriety” between district business and personal relationships.

In March 2018 — four months after the investigation had concluded but before Tolli had resigned — the college’s human resources department started drafting a new teacher-student fraternization policy, the details of which are still unclear.

The policy has yet to be implemented.

“We are reviewing other model policies that contain better language on employee and faculty relationships with students,” Murillo said.

Update: John Tolli has been placed on paid leave from San Diego City College while the school reviews the situation, Jack Beresford, the San Diego Community College District’s public information officer, told Voice of San Diego after this story initially published.

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