Circle of Accusers Expands in Sexual Misconduct Investigation at Presentation High
By Vicky Nguyen and Michael Bott
November 9, 2017
The group of teachers and staff accused of sexually assaulting or harassing students at a Catholic high school for girls in San Jose is growing after an explosive essay published in the Washington Post last month described the sexual assault of two students by a former Spanish teacher nearly three decades ago.
Since Presentation High School graduate Kathryn Leehane published that essay, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit has learned of accusations against several other teachers or staff members, including at least one that’s still employed at the school.
Several sources who spoke with NBC Bay Area also described reporting incidents of sexual misconduct they witnessed or learned of to school Principal Mary Miller, but they question whether those incidents were ever reported to authorities.
San Jose attorney Robert Allard is now formally representing two women who say they were victimized as students at the private high school, but he says he’s been contacted by many more who have come forward with stories of abuse. Allard said he’s since hired a team of former San Jose police sergeants and a former Santa Clara County prosecutor to investigate.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and I’ve had many sex abuse cases against many school districts in the Bay Area,” Allard said. “I’ve never had a situation like this, where it goes back for such a long period of time, literally decades, involving a multitude of teachers within the same administration.”
Allard said his team is currently investigating sexual abuse allegations against at least seven different teachers or staff members at Presentation going all the way back to 1990. He says in many of those cases, the school’s administration failed students.
“There’s one common denominator, and that is Principal Mary Miller,” Allard said. “The same recurring theme is being brought up over and over again. Inappropriate sexual activity is being brought to her attention, as committed by (school staff). And not only does she not call the police, but there have been active acts on her behalf to intimidate and frankly bully these victims into not coming forward.”
Over the past several weeks, NBC Bay Area has spoken with many Presentation graduates concerned the administration swept accusations of sexual assault under the rug. At least four say they reported incidents of sexual misconduct by teachers to Miller ranging in time from 1990 to just last year.
One former student named Ellen, who graduated in 2005, spoke with NBC Bay Area on the condition her last name would not be reported.
In one incident, she describes witnessing a classmate leave the office of a teacher visibly upset.
“She was crying,” Ellen said. “She was really, really upset.”
Ellen said her underage classmate told her what happened in the office.
“(The teacher) told her he loved her and tried to touch her,” Ellen said. “I believe it was her leg.”
Ellen describes taking her classmate to the principal’s office to report the incident.
“I was disgusted,” she said. “This is somebody I had trusted implicitly.”
Ellen said the teacher was gone from campus soon after they reported the incident. But Ellen says weeks later, the teacher was back.
So she says she confronted him herself.
“I said I don’t want you here, and I don’t want you ever teaching again,” she said.
Looking back on the incident, Ellen says she doesn’t believe Miller ever reported the incident to authorities. She says she was never interviewed by police or Child Protective Services.
That same year, Ellen took her concerns about another teacher to Miller after seeing an email from a recent Presentation graduate warning students to avoid him.
“Don’t be alone with him, and don’t be around him,” Ellen says the email warned.
Ellen says she soon learned that teacher was accused of having sex with a student who had just graduated. She says she immediately brought those claims to Miller, and the teacher was soon gone.
Miller has so far declined to be interviewed for this story, but she released a statement regarding the accusations against those teachers.
“Because the law prohibits us from disclosing employee or student information, we cannot comment on personnel issues or decisions, but we can tell you neither of these men have been employed at Presentation High School for at least 12 years. As in all instances at PHS, the administration followed the appropriate protocols and procedures required by the law. Because of privacy laws affecting both students and staff, we cannot disclose additional information.”
Ellen says she’s somewhat conflicted about speaking out. Miller, she says, is someone always trusted and looked up to. In a time of need, Ellen says Miller personally helped her. She credits the principal with helping hundreds of young women who have gone through Presentation, including herself. But looking back, she says she doesn’t believe her principal did enough to protect students.
“I think the school was concerned about its reputation,” she says.
“What often happens in the school environment is the school administration thinks that they need to do some investigation before reporting," said Bill Grimm, senior attorney at the National Youth Law Center.
Grimm said laws passed in 1980 require school staff to immediately call police or Child Protective Services, not to interview victims or suspects themselves.
“The law requires as soon as you have a reasonable suspicion, you need to report it, and then leave it to the professionals or law enforcement to investigate,” Grimm said. “It’s important to report quickly and have the investigation conducted quickly so that all the other students in that same school environment are protected.”
In the social media firestorm that followed Leehane’s Washington Post essay, many Presentation graduates are defending Miller and the school.
In an email to NBC Bay Area, Presentation grad turned science department chair and physics teacher Diane Rosenthal said she believes Miller has handled these incidents with her best judgment.
“I have known Mary Miller for more than 30 years,” Rosenthal wrote. “Her whole life has been dedicated to educating women and I have 100 percent faith in the fact that she would never knowingly put a child in a danger.”
Although Leehane has so far not spoken publicly about the essay that’s focused a spotlight on the small San Jose high school, her older sister Maria Alderete, class of 1988, defended Leehane against critics that accuse her of dragging Presentation’s name through the mud.
“I believe my sister,” Alderete said. “I believe it happened, and I believe that Mr. Fernandez made several poor decisions. The impact of his actions have scarred women for decades.”
Alderete said letting these issues fester beneath the surface will only hurt the school and its students.
“If we create a culture of silence, we’re never going to be able to get better,” Alderete said.