Stay up to Date
Will Huntsberry's biweekly education report (Thursdays)
At least one dozen students at Mission Middle School in Escondido complained about a teacher’s inappropriate behavior toward them. But it was only once one student reported several years after the fact that the teacher had raped her inside a locked classroom that officials sprang into action. The teacher denies the allegations, and has never been charged with a crime.
Jane Doe, as she is known in the case files, knew of her teacher Josh French’s creepy reputation.
It was an open secret that he hand-picked the best looking girls to sit at the front of his 8th grade social studies class at Mission Middle School in Escondido Union School District. From his viewpoint at the lectern, he could look directly down their shirts and many said he did so quite openly. French even held awards for the “Prettiest Girl” in class, according to one account in the district investigative files. (French denies these allegations.)
More than one student reported French’s behavior to more than one teacher. At least one dozen middle school girls told at least three school workers what was happening.
One teacher suggested they “write incident reports.”
Another said “not to wear low cut shirts.”
“Put binders in front of [your] chests when [you’re] near French” to block his gaze, said another, according to investigative reports that emerged later.
As each girl came forward with a new story, it appears teachers kept coming up with new ways for the girls to adjust their own behavior or appearance. Meanwhile, French’s colleagues made way for him – a young white man who brought energy and authoritative presence to a primarily Latino, high-poverty middle school – to be himself.
But Jane Doe, who was one of French’s students and no more than 13 years old, knew it was wrong for a grown man to act the way he did toward young girls, she later told investigators. Doe was at the center of an intensive district investigation of French that included interviews with his colleagues and former students. Those interviews paint a disturbing picture: Warning signs that French did not belong in the classroom, that his students felt he treated them as sexual objects and that he harassed them appeared over and over again. But no one acted.
At least not until Doe came forward in 2015 and said French raped her inside a locked classroom.
A district investigation ultimately determined French engaged in “immoral conduct” and committed “sexual assault, sexual battery or sexual coercion.” But even after that, California’s regulatory system allowed him to stay in the classroom for more than an additional year teaching students. A criminal investigation against him stalled, and he has never been charged with a crime.
This story is compiled from the district’s investigative case files, obtained by Voice of San Diego through a Public Records Act request, as well as extensive interviews.
Josh French came from a long line of educators. When he started teaching in 2005, he envisioned a lifelong career and that he would eventually become a principal. His father Thomas French was a legendary principal in Escondido Union and served as an assistant superintendent. Josh French taught early American history.
“I put costumes on and everything,” he said in an interview with Voice of San Diego. “I’d pretend to be the person I was teaching about. I put my heart and soul into it.”
French spoke some Spanish, too, a valuable asset at Mission Middle School, where roughly 45 percent of students are English-language learners. He was the boys’ soccer coach and many of the boys in the school liked him, according to interviews in the district’s investigative files. By some accounts, he worked well with challenging students. He set boundaries and kept them, he said. He described his style as “tough” and no-nonsense.
Supervisors gave French positive reviews in each of five evaluations included in his case file. He received the highest, “Exemplifies Standard,” in his final three evaluations. But even as supervisors signed off on French’s professionalism, some coworkers noticed a toxic streak.
Once, a female clerk who worked in the front office noticed French was having a positive impact on a female student who served as his student aid. The girl was “sassy and mouthy,” the clerk said, but French’s tough style seemed to be helping her. French, though, decided he didn’t want to work with the student anymore. He came into the office and started yelling that he wanted the girl assigned to someone else, according to multiple accounts. The clerk pushed back and the two of them started openly arguing.
“I got kind of heated,” French admitted to VOSD, recalling the argument.
One person at the time believed French called several women in the office “whores” during the scene, that person told investigators.
“Never. Absolutely never happened,” French told VOSD.
French spoke to VOSD in a series of three phone conversations, ranging from 10 minutes to nearly an hour. At times, he was angry. At others, he was perturbed but calm and defended his innocence.
The clerk and French went through official mediation and moved on. But other teachers also started questioning his behavior toward women.
One man who taught with French remembers several women coming to him upset by how French had treated them. “I did at times hear a number of complaints from colleagues that were not happy with the way he was treating them. They were mostly women,” the teacher said.
Voice of San Diego agreed to withhold the teacher’s name because he said he feared retaliation.
The teacher, like French, had been relatively new to the classroom at the time. Some days he thought maybe he should say something, and that maybe French shouldn’t be in a classroom. Others it seemed everything was OK. He wishes he could do it over again.
“I wish I had spoken up more or at least talked to him about it,” he said. “If I could do it again, I would have had a conversation with Josh about it – about the way that colleagues were responding to him.”
The teacher said he never heard of French’s sexualized behavior toward the students of Mission Middle School. If he had, he might have acted. But like everyone else, he knew only a piece of French’s behavior – which, seen as a whole, should have easily triggered an adult to do something.
For some young girls, French was becoming a perceived threat by 2008. One of French’s students, who is not named in the files, said she knew to be “cautious” around French. He gave too much attention to girls, generally, she told an investigator, and would place his hands on their shoulders.
Once French let a girl walk by him, she said; he then turned and looked her up and down from head to toe. She saw him stand over girls and look down their shirts. It was “weird,” she said.
French denies that he looked down girls’ shirts or sized them up.
Another girl in French’s 2009-10 social studies class told investigators French had a reputation among students as a “pervert.” He told her multiple times she was “attractive” and “had a nice body,” she said. (French denies this.) He placed his hand on her hip in a way she felt was inappropriate once as they were posing for a photo, she said. (French doesn’t remember this, he said.) It was common knowledge, the girl said, that French found her attractive and talked about it to the boys on his soccer team.
One of the most disturbing interviews, recounted in French’s district file, comes from a fellow teacher, another man, who was friendly with French outside work. At least one dozen young women came to the teacher to report French’s flirtatious behavior and his unwelcome leering. The teacher’s response: He told the girls to “write incident reports.” The case file does not indicate the teacher did anything else, such as report French’s behavior to a superior.
French also shared deeply troubling thoughts with the man. Once they went shooting together at a gun range. French, according to the man’s memory, said all girls should know how to give a blowjob by the time they reach puberty. This was especially rattling, the teacher told investigators, given the age of the girls they taught and the reports the teacher was hearing from students.
Another time, French confessed to him what many people already knew: “I put the girls with bigger tits in the front, so I can look down their shirts,” French told him, the teacher remembered, according to the investigative report.
One explanation for the teacher’s inaction seems to be French’s father’s reputation.
Thomas French had worked his way up to assistant superintendent of business services in Escondido Union. But before he retired, he went back to the classroom and spent his last three years as principal of Orange Glen Elementary School. In a glowing profile, written at the time of his retirement, the San Diego Union-Tribune highlighted his tendency to wear costumes and go to outlandish lengths to make school fun.
French told the teacher his father’s reputation made him “untouchable,” the teacher told investigators. It’s unclear how many teachers really believed this. French’s father retired in 2006, just a year after French started teaching. If some believed French was untouchable, it may have been simply because he acted as if it were true.
French denies everything the teacher said. However, he said, he doesn’t deny everything in his case file. But then, when asked for point-by-point responses to the major events in his file, he denied all of them, except for becoming “heated” in the verbal fight with the office clerk.
“As a human, there’s times when we say stupid stuff,” he said. “But did I get out of control? No. I’m an intense guy. But being unprofessional or extremely heated in school? That’s not me. I grew up in a family of education professionals. We know how to act.”
Jane Doe was 18 and a senior in high school in 2015, when she first told someone what had happened to her five years earlier. First she told her boyfriend and her sister-in-law. Her sister-in-law told her brother, and her brother told their mother. Then they told Escondido police.
Doe, like the other girls unfortunate enough to have French’s attention, sat at the front of his eighth grade social studies class in 2010. French was “flirty” with her, she later told district investigators. Once as she was putting on lip gloss, he told her, “I like how your lips look,” she said. Doe knew “a grown man” shouldn’t be talking to her that way. But she was a child then and children know one thing for sure about adults: They are not subject to rules the same way children are.
Leading up to Winter Break, they’d been studying the Bill of Rights. Doe’s grandfather died in December, and she missed some assignments. She showed up after school one Monday to collect them and found French alone at his desk in Room 23. She sat down to wait while he gathered what she needed, but instead he locked the classroom door, she said.
This account – which French aggressively denies – is presented in the “notice of charges” document school officials presented to the school board, recommending French be fired:
“French said he was sorry for her loss and with his arms outstretched, gestured with his arms to hug her. Doe got up and French hugged her, but the hug was ‘too tight’ and Doe pushed French away. French pushed Doe to the ground and Doe almost hit her head on the desk … Doe was wearing a dress and French placed his hand under her dress … French did not undress himself, but had his pants unzipped. French did not say anything to her and then jabbed his penis inside her. French continued to penetrate Doe for what seemed like a long time. Doe stated that she mumbled and tried to say no but was unable to because French’s arm covered Doe’s mouth. When French finished penetrating Doe, he zipped his pants and then threatened to harm Doe’s mother if she told anyone about the incident.”
Doe got up with her shoulder bag still slung across her body and ran out of the room.
When Doe and her family told police what happened, they immediately started an investigation and informed school district officials. District officials placed French on paid administrative leave on April 15, 2015. They also hired their own private investigator to try to find out what happened.
Michelle Mayfield, a detective with Escondido police, worked the case for more than a year, but it eventually dried up. It’s unclear why. French refused to be interviewed throughout the entire police investigation. He refused, he said, because police would not grant him an informal interview. Anything he told them could have been used in a prosecution.
Notes in the school district’s case file also indicate Mayfield began having trouble contacting Doe.
Escondido police spokesman Chris Lick declined to comment on the case or to make Mayfield available for an interview. Lick would not say why the investigation wound down or whether it was even still open. Apparently, investigators didn’t believe there was enough evidence for a prosecution: They never submitted the case to the San Diego County district attorney’s office, a spokeswoman for the DA’s office said.
Bringing a rape case is notoriously difficult. People accused, like French, have a constitutional right to face their accuser in court. Even in a case with witnesses and DNA evidence, a victim usually needs to be willing to participate for a trial to move forward. They will be forced to sit in the middle of an open courtroom, surrounded by people, as at least one lawyer tries to discredit their story. If it is a he-said-she-said situation, and the aggressor walks free, it would be more demoralizing than doing nothing at all.
VOSD described the charges in French’s case file to Verna Griffin-Tabor, who has worked with people affected by sexual violence for more than 20 years and runs the Center for Community Solutions in San Diego. Although she couldn’t comment specifically on French’s case, she said, “Most perpetrators of this level of harm are smart and calculating.” Sophisticated predators, she said, “make sure there aren’t any witnesses. They try to set it up as a he said-she said situation.”
But many warning signs – which each present opportunities to intervene – rise to the surface before most assaults ever occur, said Griffin-Tabor. Rapes do not tend to happen all of a sudden. Abusers test boundaries first, she said. Maybe it is a hand on the shoulder. Then a comment about looks. Then both in an empty room. As a potential abuser tests the greater community, maybe it is the overt sexualization of young women. If no one responds, that is a signal.
“Many times, because adults don’t know what to do, they do nothing,” she said.
In other words, the inaction of the adults at Mission Middle School is not unique. Escondido Union officials said they strive to create a safe environment, where people feel comfortable to speak up about inappropriate behavior – just like any organization.
We asked if that was the environment at Mission Middle School in 2010.
“That would call for speculation on what conditions were like when this occurred,” said Superintendent Luis Rankins-Ibarra in a statement. He said he’s confident the district has a system in place for dealing with similar complaints now.
The school district’s investigation did not require the same burden of proof as a criminal case. Officials concluded, based on dozens of interviews, that French engaged in “unwelcome leering,” “graphic verbal comments,” “touching … in a sexual way,” “impeding or blocking movements” and “sexual assault, sexual battery or sexual coercion.”
District officials moved to fire French, but he voluntarily resigned on Aug. 19, 2016, more than a year after the investigation started. The district’s findings triggered the submission of a report on French’s behavior to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. The commission conducted its own investigation, and revoked French’s teaching credential 14 months later.
In the meantime, French worked as a substitute teacher in two school districts – Vista Unified and Murrieta Valley Unified School District. He was allowed to stay in the classroom until October 2017.
An official with Vista Unified said that district followed “normal procedures” for hiring a substitute teacher when it hired French. But the official would not confirm whether that meant district officials checked on French’s history in Escondido. Officials at Murrieta Valley did not respond to a request for comment on whether they inquired about French’s work history. School districts are not required to make such inquiries.
A state bill introduced last year would have forced districts to check with past employers to find out if a person had been found responsible for sexual abuse or misconduct. That bill died in committee after opposition from the state teacher’s union and the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued it hindered due process.
The federal government has urged states to create such laws to keep sexual predators out of the classroom. But California has yet to do so. If a California school district fails to check up on new hires, and a predator makes it inside the classroom, that district has not done anything wrong, based on the state’s current legal framework.
A separate 2014 bill that was successful made it easier for local districts to fire educators who committed egregious misconduct. But it did not address keeping them out of classrooms in other school districts.
French now works as an independent adviser, consulting people on their retirement, he said. He hasn’t worked in education since he was a substitute teacher and hopes to get a position at a bigger company working in sales and consulting.
We asked French why he thought so many people would be willing to say so many bad things about him, if they weren’t true.
“That is the same question I have asked and my family and friends have asked,” French said in a phone conversation. “We don’t know whether it was a scheme or what … her and whoever she was involved with are the only people who really know what happened.”
“Maybe she had a crush or something like that,” he said in separate conversation.
Asked again, he had another theory: “I think it’s 100 percent jealousy,” he said of why so many people would bring such serious charges against him. “Pure jealousy. Because I’m a good teacher. I had great respect. I was a leader and there’s people out there that don’t like that – especially when you’re the new guy.”
“I’ve been the victim,” he said.
He also lashed out at Voice of San Diego and other media for singling out men in recent years over sexual abuse. “This whole ‘me too’ bullshit, you’re living on it. You’re making money on it. I didn’t do shit. I’m sure there were some things that were said over the years that were inappropriate. … But I didn’t do the horrible thing they accused me of.”
Jane Doe spent days and weeks thinking about what he had said about hurting her mother, she told investigators. She believed his threat was real. He knew where she lived, she thought. In time, she moved on with her life, but she couldn’t leave what happened behind. She saw French’s face in nightmares and flashbacks, until she finally told someone what happened.
The file does not say why Doe fell out of contact with police. Her case was five years old and the file suggests there were no witnesses or other corroborating evidence. She would have faced a horrendous ordeal and an uncertain outcome in court. Should Doe ever come forward again, the case could still go ahead. There is no statute of limitations on a sex crime against a minor.