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Sweetwater Agreed to Pay $2 Million to Former Student Abused by JROTC Teacher

The settlement not only illuminates the ways in which problem educators can move from school district to school district but the extremely high cost – morally and financially – such moves can have for districts that decline to thoroughly examine the backgrounds of the educators they hire.

Mar Vista High School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The Sweetwater Union High School District agreed to pay a former Mar Vista High School student $2.2 million to settle claims it negligently hired and retained a Navy Junior ROTC substitute teacher who pleaded guilty to statutory rape, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by Voice of San Diego.

The former student filed a lawsuit alleging the district should have known about ongoing sexual harassment and sexual abuse by the teacher, Martin Gallegos. The lawsuit originally included Coronado Unified School District, where Gallegos was employed full time for years, but Coronado was eventually dropped from the suit. The lawsuit says that at Coronado, Gallegos was accused of sexual misconduct by another former Junior ROTC student and abruptly left his position.

Gallegos, 48 at the time, pleaded guilty to statutory rape in 2016 stemming from his involvement with the Sweetwater student, who was 17 at the time, and was sentenced to a year in jail and three years of probation.

Sweetwater settled the lawsuit with the student, identified only as Jane Roe, in 2018.

The settlement not only illuminates the ways in which problem educators can move from school district to school district but the extremely high cost – morally and financially – such moves can have for districts that decline to thoroughly examine the backgrounds of the educators they hire.

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Martin Gallegos taught in the Navy Junior ROTC program at Coronado High School from 2007 to 2015.

The program is taught by retired Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard officers and enlisted military personnel and “emphasizes citizenship and leadership development … maritime heritage, the significance of sea power and naval topics such as the fundamentals of naval operations, seamanship, navigation and meteorology,” according to its website.

Gallegos, a retired Marine, was highly regarded by his colleagues at Coronado, according to court documents.

But months before the 2015 school year ended, Gallegos abruptly left his position at Coronado.

According to Roe’s lawsuit, a former student at Coronado told Roe Gallegos left the program because she complained to Coronado administrators that he made inappropriate comments about her sex life, called her derogatory names and arbitrarily forbid her from dating fellow Junior ROTC cadets.

The lawsuit alleged Coronado Unified School District knowingly passed Gallegos along to Sweetwater after releasing him from his full-time teaching position.

Coronado disputed that claim. The district said in court records that officials never spoke to anyone, including Sweetwater Union, about Gallegos’s employment at the school.

Coronado Unified officials declined to comment on why Gallegos left the school in the middle of the school year.

Nor did Coronado inform the Navy’s Naval Service Training Command, which certifies Junior ROTC instructors, of any allegations of sexual misconduct by Gallegos, a spokesman for the agency told Voice of San Diego.

Lt. Cdr. Frederick Martin, the public affairs officer for the Naval Service Training Command, said the program had never been informed of the Coronado student’s allegations until Voice of San Diego inquired whether it had any record of them.

“We work closely with our schools, and review the certification of instructors when advised of disciplinary actions, as we expect instructors to maintain the highest standards of conduct,” Martin said in an email. “This includes a requirement on the schools to report instructor misconduct to the NJROTC program managers. “

If Coronado had reported the misconduct to the Junior ROTC program, it could have taken action to revoke Gallegos’ instructor certification, Martin said.

There is no record that Coronado reported the misconduct to the state teacher credentialing agency, either. School district superintendents are required to report any changes in employment status resulting from misconduct to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing – but it’s not clear whether that applies to Gallegos’ situation.

Devin Storey, Roe’s attorney, said Coronado would not provide any records regarding Gallegos, which ultimately led to Coronado being dropped from the civil suit.

Coronado Unified continues to claim it does not have any records of the student’s sexual harassment complaint, or any investigation on Gallegos.

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The next school year, Sweetwater Union High School District had an opening for a substitute teacher at Mar Vista High School.

Gallegos was hired for the position, and worked with the Junior ROTC program and helped coordinate its drill team.

The district said in court records that prior to hiring Gallegos, it received letters of recommendation from the Navy attesting to his qualifications.

But a spokesman from the Naval Service Training Command told VOSD the department was unaware Gallegos taught at Mar Vista High School until it heard about the sexual assault allegations reported by Roe.

Beyond asking other teachers at the school who already knew him from his work at Coronado, Sweetwater said in the lawsuit that it verified Gallegos’ prior employment with the Naval Service Training Command. That’s a peculiar answer, because though Gallegos was once certified as a Junior ROTC instructor by that department, he was not an employee there. The district said Gallegos was employed by the Department of Justice prior to being hired for the Mar Vista role, yet it does not say it contacted that agency.

Though Navy Junior ROTC teachers are required to have a certification from the Naval Service Training Command, Gallegos was able to skirt that requirement because the role he took on at Mar Vista High was a substitute position, so it didn’t apply. That was good for Gallegos: His certification had only been valid for Coronado High, said a spokesperson from the Naval Service Training Command.

Gallegos received other recommendations from Cmdr. Doug Hatfield, the head of the Navy Junior ROTC program at Mar Vista High and Timothy M. Spence, a retired Navy commander and former Junior ROTC teacher at another school, according to court records.

But Sweetwater officials never inquired with Coronado Unified regarding Gallegos’s work there.

Sweetwater Union High School District officials declined to comment on the settlement.

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Gallegos began the substitute role at Mar Vista High School in September 2015.

In one of Roe’s interactions with Gallegos, she interviewed him for an article to be published in a school newsletter, according to Roe’s lawsuit.

She was the program’s public affairs officer at the school and interacted frequently with Gallegos. By the end of 2015, Roe had become one of Gallegos’s favorite students, according to the complaint.

Gallegos gave Roe frequent car rides. And he bought her lunch so often “It became known to other JROTC instructors and students that Gallegos ate lunch alone with Roe,” according to the complaint.

The attention didn’t stop there.

First, Gallegos texted Roe outside of school. Those messages became more sexually suggestive when Roe told Gallegos she thought she has feelings for him, according to the lawsuit.

In response, Gallegos told her he was flattered and she would get over it. He made a comment like “one more year though” referring to the fact she had just turned 17 and would be of legal age soon. Gallegos later confessed to Roe that he had feelings for her as well, according to the complaint.

The relationship progressed to holding hands in the Junior ROTC office and Gallegos’s car to setting a date to meet for dinner after Roe graduated, according to court documents.

From then on, the interactions became more physical.

After a February 2016 academic league competition, “Roe was at the school waiting for her ride home. She waited in the JROTC office with Gallegos,” according to the complaint.

Then, “Gallegos began holding her hand, then kissing her,” the complaint reads. “Gallegos then became more sexually aggressive. After a few minutes, Roe’s phone rang, and it was her father letting her knew that he was at the school to pick her up. (Roe) left the JROTC office.”

After the encounter, Gallegos began to send her text messages like “you felt and tasted so good,” and “I crave you.”

Days later, Roe attended the Navy Junior ROTC Ball. Before the military ball, Gallegos encouraged Roe to have sex with him in the school’s JROTC office, according to the lawsuit.

Four weeks later, Roe stopped attending Mar Vista High School.

On April 8, 2016, “a formal report was made to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department regarding the abuse,” according to the complaint. A Sheriff’s Department investigation into the relationship between Roe and Gallegos, including examining their shared text messages, followed, according to a Sheriff’s Department press release at the time.

A day later, Gallegos was arrested and booked into the San Diego Central Jail for five counts of sexual conduct with a minor. Sweetwater Union terminated him from his position on April 11, 2016.

Gallegos pleaded guilty to one felony count of statutory rape and was sentenced to one year in prison and three years of probation in September 2016.

His teaching credential was revoked, but the judge handling his case declined to require Gallegos to register as a sex offender, citing his Navy service, according to NBC San Diego.

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In the end, only Sweetwater ended up bearing costs following the failures that led to Gallegos’ abuse of Roe.

Yet the suit also makes clear that other parties could have done more.

Coronado could have informed the Navy, which accredits Junior ROTC instructors, that he’d left abruptly mid-year after an allegation of misconduct.

There’s no record Coronado informed the state teaching credentialing commission about any allegations against Gallegos.

Yet there’s nothing illegal about those inactions: Under current law, school districts are not required to inquire with previous employers about an applicant’s job history, or accusations of misconduct. The federal government has urged states to implement laws that would require more rigorous examinations of a prospective employee’s work history, but California has yet to approve one.

A state bill currently in the Legislature would require districts to inquire about allegations of misconduct against children with previous employers. The same bill died in the Legislature last year.

The settlement agreement between Roe and Sweetwater stipulates that it is not an admission of liability, but “for the purpose of avoiding further controversy, litigation and expense.” The money will constitute “damages on account of personal injuries or sickness,” the agreement says.

Sweetwater will pay Roe a $20,000 lump sum beginning in 2023, when she turns 25. The full amount will be paid in installments through 2048.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of one of Roe’s interactions with Gallegos. According to her complaint, she had become one of Gallegos’ favorite students in late 2015.

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