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Sweetwater Officials Agreed to Keep Quiet About Teacher Who Report Found Harassed and Groped Students

An investigation found Anthony Atienza’s behavior toward female students to be “severe and pervasive.” As part of his departure deal, Atienza received paid leave and Sweetwater Union High School District officials agreed not to tell other schools or prospective employers about the misconduct findings.

Chula Vista High School’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Chula Vista High School’s 2017 Teacher of the Year Anthony Atienza sexually harassed and groped at least three female students repeatedly in recent years, according to Sweetwater district officials who found his conduct to be “severe and pervasive” after a months-long investigation.

Sweetwater Union High School District records obtained by Voice of San Diego show three students complained Atienza – an acclaimed show choir teacher who’s worked for the district since 1992 – targeted them for months with frequent touching and inappropriate remarks on and off campus.

Two students said they came forward in February 2017 to protect future students from Atienza’s advances, and a third said she reported him after a frightening encounter on a school trip to Disneyland.

Students reported Atienza spanked them, ran his hand over their thighs and made sexual comments. Some of the touching and leering behavior was witnessed by other students, according to a 63-page July 2017 investigation report by then-Assistant Principal Hilda Cadena. Cadena interviewed 28 students in all.

“Mr. Atienza’s severe and pervasive conduct created a hostile and intimidating environment for the three complainants, and it is reasonable to assume that other current and former students have felt the same way,” the report concluded. “The submission to this conduct was perceived by students as a condition of status within the program, and the perception was reasonable under the circumstances.”

Atienza has been on paid leave from his assignments at Chula Vista High this school year. Until recently, he was working part-time for Lakeside Middle School in East County and teaching after-school classes for Christian Youth Theater.

Lakeside and Christian Youth Theater officials both said they contacted Sweetwater, but had not seen the investigation, nor been notified by the district about the misconduct findings.

In October, Sweetwater officials agreed as part of a resignation deal with Atienza not to discuss or disclose the investigation or complaints with potential employers.

The departure deal put Atienza on paid leave through June 30 with an annual salary of $100,763. Per the agreement, district officials will tell anyone who inquires beginning July 1 that “Atienza has voluntarily resigned from the District, and we wish him well.”

But the parents of one of the students who complained said they were told a different story. School officials told them the settlement with Atienza would allow the district to tell future employers he was terminated and provide no reference, they said. They were dismayed to learn otherwise.

Sweetwater officials declined to answer questions about the deal, but denied making such claims to the parents.

Atienza declined Voice of San Diego’s interview request, citing the confidentiality requirements of the resignation agreement.

In a statement, he referred VOSD to his four-page written district response “refuting the district’s slanted ‘investigative’ report/findings, which chose to credit three troubled female students over the legion of current and former students, their parents, and teaching colleagues who know the allegations against me are false. Any story that references me will be scrutinized for misstating or omitting facts.”

Atienza also wrote to VOSD: “My conduct with my current and all my former students is and has always been appropriate.”

In Atienza’s July 2017 letter to the district, he said his reputation “has been irrevocably shattered by the imaginations of three troubled high school girls” and “The Report’s author fails to credit my 24 years of exemplary and without-incident-or-discipline service to the District which is entirely inconsistent with the Accusers’ charges that I sexually harassed them.”

Atienza’s teaching credential is currently valid, though an investigation is underway by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, according to a March 15 email provided by a parent of one of the Chula Vista High School students who complained last year.

Kristina McKinney, a special investigator for the credentialing commission, wrote the parent saying investigations take approximately six months, then the educator may appeal any disciplinary action imposed, which can add months or even years to the process, according to a recent report by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

“Throughout this entire process, a credential holder, by law, can continue to teach until his/her case is fully adjudicated,” McKinney wrote in the email.

A spokesman for the credentialing commission told VOSD the law prevents him from confirming the existence of an investigation.

Atienza’s behavior with students did not lead to criminal charges, but Chula Vista police did open an investigation and referred the case to the San Diego County district attorney’s office last spring, Chula Vista police Lt. Dan Peak said.

“When our office declines to file charges in a case we’ve reviewed, we do so because we cannot prove potential charges beyond a reasonable doubt,” Steve Walker, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said in an email. “We are not able to discuss our analysis further.”

Chula Vista police Lt. Dan Peak said officers had not seen the district’s investigative report during their initial investigation.

“Based on the report you sent to our department, we are trying to determine if we have any possible unknown victims or witnesses to be identified,” Peak wrote in an email May 31.

A Jarring Disneyland Trip

According to district records, the three students who came forward became accustomed to certain behaviors from Atienza, including butt-slapping and touching their waist or thigh with his hand.

“When asked to demonstrate, Student B placed her hand on her upper thigh about one (1) inch to one and a half (1½) inches away from her pelvic area, with her fingers wrapping toward her inner thigh,” according to Cadena’s report.

The same student wrote in a statement Atienza complimented her body and “would trace his fingers on my thigh. Place his hand on my inner thigh. Smack and touch my butt. Feel up my back for bra straps.”

Another student wrote in a statement Atienza “would stare at my breasts or butt. He will also put his hand on your waist and just leave it there. He also offers to buy things and every time I refuse he gets mad.”

“Mr. A makes relationships with girls that at first seem ‘fatherly,’ but evolve into something more,” a third student wrote in a statement last year. “He puts his hands on girls’ waists and has slapped many girls’ butts.”

A few encounters in particular left them shaken.

On a school trip to Disneyland for a show choir competition in February 2017, one of the students said Atienza tried to lure her to his hotel room alone. She was able to stall after learning Atienza told another student she couldn’t come along, and that his family would not be in the room with them as initially planned.

“She stated that at first, she was told everyone was going to go, then there was no one,” the report says. She told the investigator at one point on the way to the hotel, Atienza began “touching her hip and grabbing her belt loop.” She felt like things were escalating and became scared. “Everything felt wrong,” she said, according to Cadena’s report.

Atienza denied having any physical contact with the student and denied making any effort to get her alone at the hotel. He told school officials he did offer his family’s hotel room to the student to rest after she told him she was tired and did not want to go on any rides, the report says.

“I’m going back to the hotel with the family, you can hang out on the couch until it’s time to leave,” he reported he said. Another student “overheard the conversation and invited herself. Mr. Atienza realized that this was not going to work, since his family was there, so he told both of them no,” and then decided to stay at the park, he told school officials, according to the report.

A different female student reported Atienza accosted her on the same Disneyland trip when she was on the bus gathering her things after a performance.

As she bent over her bus seat, “Atienza tightly grabbed her waist and Student A felt a ‘pull or yank’ toward his private area and ‘he rubbed himself against my butt,’” the report recounts. She reported he then said, “excuse me” after passing. A male student on the bus at the time witnessed the incident, district records indicate.

The student “reported being shocked and did not respond. Student A felt frozen. Student A stated this crossed the line for her; Student A felt ‘grossed out’ and ‘violated.’ Student A was asked why she used the word violated and Student A replied that it was an uncomfortable touch and uncalled for. Student A felt it was deliberate and obvious,” the report says.

The report says Atienza told school officials he “did not recall entering the bus” during the time in question.

Prosecutors looked closely at the bus encounter while weighing whether to charge Atienza, but ultimately told parents the fact the alleged incident happened in another county posed problems, one of the parents interviewed by law enforcement told VOSD.

Car Rides and Shopping Trips

Atienza admitted he made a habit of driving some students home, took students on errands, bought them meals and occasionally took female students to the mall alone or in pairs, according to district records.

One shopping trip to the Plaza Bonita mall concerned two of the students who complained. They both reported Atienza insisted one of them try on a revealing dress that was difficult to move in while he took photos of her.

The report summarized the students’ version of the encounter: “Student A told Mr. Atienza it was too short and too revealing. Student A was told by Mr. Atienza to try it on anyway. Student A came out covering her breast area. Student A was told by Mr. Atienza to remove her hands and to turn around while Mr. Atienza took pictures.”

The student said she tried on 15 to 18 dresses for Atienza that day.

Atienza told school officials he took one photo of the student in a dress at the mall, the report says.

“When asked if he felt the student had the choice not to try on a dress, Mr. Atienza responded yes, he wanted to make sure they were comfortable,” the report says. He said parent permission for the trip was not obtained, but at least one parent picked his daughter up afterward. Atienza dropped the other student off at another student’s house.

On another occasion while driving a student home, a student reported Atienza asked her which choir students would have sex with each other if they were all stranded on an island. Atienza told school officials he “did not recall this incident,” the report says.

On a December 2016 shopping trip for a secret Santa gift with a female student, the student claimed Atienza told her another student had a good neck for choker necklaces. Then, “he grabbed her neck saying she had a neck for chokers too and began moving his hand around her neck,” the report says. She told officials, “I was really confused and weirded out that his hand was on my neck.”

Atienza denied the encounter to investigators.

Weighing Credibility

Bras have also been a topic of conversation for Atienza, according to student accounts.

A student reported Atienza rubbed her back and asked repeatedly why she wasn’t wearing a bra. She also said he told her guys like bralettes better than bras, because the breast is more visible.

When questioned, Atienza said he recalls the student briefly boycotted bras, but denied rubbing her back or commenting on her lack of a bra. The report says he “did not recall” discussing which bras boys liked better.

During one rehearsal, a female student felt a stab on her back while dancing – it was from two pins in her dress, which another student removed.

Atienza then called her over in a firm voice, she said, asked her to turn around and “then he lifted the dress without asking for her permission and began to feel for pins. Student A reported that Mr. Atienza was feeling her back with his hands.” The encounter ended 20 to 30 seconds later when Atienza couldn’t find any pins, she said.

Atienza told school officials he didn’t recall any issues with pins, but recalled a problem with her dress strap or clasp, and he asked her to turn around to look at it.

“When asked if he lifted her dress to look for pins, he stated he did not know anything about any pins,” the report says.

One student said as she dealt with stage fright before performances, Atienza complimented her looks.

“You are hot. Do not worry everyone will love you. When you get on stage everyone is going to think how attractive you are,” she told officials Atienza said. “Student A reported that it made her feel ‘grossed out and uncomfortable’ because he is a teacher.”

In text messages shown to school officials, Atienza sent students messages with heart and kiss emojis. Students also reported Atienza acted jealous if they spoke to or texted boys.

Upon learning she was texting a boy, one student said Atienza got mad, and “reported that his statements made her feel like he owned her.”

Atienza explained the encounter, saying he encouraged the student to focus on school, family and choir and told her she “did not need a boy.”

The same student reported Atienza told her one of her male friends “only wants to be your friend because he wants to have sex with you.”

According to Cadena’s investigative report, “Seven female students reported being leered at in an up and down manner by Mr. Atienza and/or Mr. Atienza leering at a specific body part.”

One of the primary students who complained said Atienza would frequently stare at her up and down, or at her breasts or butt “every other day.” She said his stare was sometimes brief or could last a minute. On one occasion, the student reported he asked her to walk with him to the car to retrieve lotion. On the way, “she noticed Mr. Atienza turned his head to look at her butt. Mr. Atienza began to slow down and walked behind her all the way to the car and stared at her butt,” the report says.

A different student reported Atienza took her off campus to buy tacos when she was excused from fifth period one day. She was wearing a V-neck with a low neckline and reported “Mr. Atienza’s eyes were never on her face as they spoke.”

The same student said Atienza on another occasion tasked her with gathering costume and makeup ideas for shows. While showing her his Pinterest account, she said he pointed out the cleavage and midriff he found attractive on female models.

In weighing the credibility of the students against Atienza, Cadena found Atienza’s responses lacking.

“Ms. Cadena found Mr. Atienza’s credibility to be of concern due to the vague responses provided and lack of recollection of incidents. The lack of adherence to site and district protocols were of further concern,” the report says. “The discrepancy of his statements versus student statements, his lack of recollection of many details and denial of incidents when they have been observed by many witnesses caused this investigator to question the veracity of his statements.”

Cadena substantiated student allegations of touching, verbal, written and visual harassment from Atienza, as well as unprofessional conduct and other unwelcome behavior based on “the preponderance of the evidence,” she wrote.

Cadena recommended “appropriate personnel action” “for severe and pervasive conduct,” but didn’t specify what the action should be.

Atienza’s resignation agreement granting paid leave for the entire 2017-18 school year followed nearly three months later.

‘Trying to Pick the Pieces Back Up’

For the families of the students who complained last year, life hasn’t been easy in the aftermath of the district and police investigations. The students who complained about Atienza’s behavior were minors at the time of the incidents, and VOSD has agreed not to identify them or their families.

One student was bullied by her peers and having a difficult high school experience when she began spending a lot of time with Atienza, her mother said. Following her complaint against Atienza, the family has struggled greatly.

The mother said she regrets the amount of trust she placed in Atienza, who she described as a “personal friend” of her husband’s family.

In hindsight, “We weren’t being responsible,” she said. “We think we have all this structure and are safe.”

When news of the investigation circulated on campus, she said fellow students called her daughter a slut and accused her of causing the show choir to fall apart. Her daughter, who already struggled with depression, has made multiple suicide attempts in recent months. She was admitted to a facility and was hospitalized for a time.

The personal toll on her family has been immense. They’ve also lost adult friends whose kids are in the program, she said.

Now the family is “Trying to pick the pieces back up. She has her good days and bad days … She’s been distraught, and she really looked up to this guy,” she said. “She just lived for whatever he said. Whatever he said, she was going to do it… Because he knew she was vulnerable and he used her weakness. She was just a weak girl at that time, and he was able to just prey on her, because he knew she wasn’t going to put up much of a fight.”

Her daughter now attends another school in the district, but she is “highly concerned” Atienza is still teaching kids.

This spring, Atienza taught classes for Christian Youth Theater students after school in different parts of the county. Earlier this school year, from November through May 3, he taught students daily at Lakeside Middle School, Lakeside district officials said.

Parents of another student said in a statement they were “extremely concerned when we learned that Mr. Atienza was still teaching in the county” and are unsatisfied with outcome of the investigations “given the severity of the substantiated claims contained in the reports.”

We were surprised to find that criminal charges could not be filed due to the technicality that one of the most severe assaults took place in another county, even though the reports substantiated the victims’ claims,” the parents wrote.

Something else caught them by surprise recently, too. They said they were told the departure deal reached with Atienza would permit the district to tell future employers he was fired.

The parents said school district and district attorney’s office officials “told us the settlement gave them the benefit of saying he was terminated with no references. This is contrary to the actual settlement terms recently made public,” which requires district officials to report Atienza voluntarily resigned on June 30.

They said their daughter is healthy and now doing well in college. For Atienza to claim the allegations against him were false and were made by “three troubled female students” adds “insult to injury,” they said.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Atienza no longer teaches classes at Christian Youth Theater; his seasonal contract ended June 6.

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