Police Investigating Whether School Followed Abuse-reporting Law
By John Woolfolk
February 22, 2018
|San Jose police confirmed Wednesday they are investigating whether officials at Presentation High School violated a state law that mandates reporting complaints about sexual misconduct. (File Photo by Jacqueline Ramseyer/Bay Area News Group)|
Raising the stakes for a prestigious Catholic girls school reeling from accusations of mishandling student sex abuse complaints, police Wednesday confirmed they are investigating whether school officials violated state law that requires them to report such claims to authorities.
Presentation High School has been rocked since October by allegations from former students that school officials did not report to police or child protection authorities as required when they complained of teachers or other staff allegedly sexually harassing or abusing them.
Police spokeswoman Gina Tepoorten confirmed officers are looking into the matter but would not comment otherwise on their investigation.
“We welcome the San Jose Police Department’s investigation” into the complaints, Presentation spokesman Sam Singer said Wednesday. The accusations, which former students have posted on a website and social media, have led to school officials and supporters being subjected to anonymous “hate-filled” letters, emails and voice mail messages, Singer added.
The school has insisted it properly handled all complaints brought to administrators’ attention and said it has no record or recollection of at least a half dozen of the claims, some of which date back decades. On Tuesday the school announced it will have a new official handle future abuse claims and report directly to the school’s board, but former students who claimed past abuse said the move falls short.
Robert Allard, a lawyer representing former students who say they were sexually abused or harassed at the school, said he believes there is clear evidence that administrators failed in their duty to report the complaints to authorities.
“Based on the evidence which we have accumulated over the last five months, we believe that each of these crimes were committed on multiple occasions by Presentation’s leadership group,” Allard said.
There have been few cases in Santa Clara County where prosecutors charged school officials with failure to report possible abuse.
A jury in 2012 convicted former O.B. Whaley Elementary School principal Lyn Vijayendran of failing to report to police a girl’s description of a sexual-sounding activity while alone with a male teacher. That teacher, Craig Chandler, later was convicted of molesting five kids.
It was only the second time in two decades that Santa Clara County prosecutors had brought such a misdemeanor charge, and the first conviction. A judge dismissed allegations in 1999 that the head of Hillbrook School in Los Gatos failed to report a bruise on the face of a student.
Under California law since 1980, school staff are “mandated reporters” who are required to notify police or a county child protective services agency of any reports or suspicions that a child may be physically or sexually abused.
Christopher Schumb, a San Jose lawyer who has specialized in such cases over 30 years, said that while he couldn’t comment on specific allegations regarding Presentation, the law sets a low bar for reporting suspected abuse to authorities.
“It’s a very, very low standard — intentionally — to allow law enforcement to get involved early,” Schumb said. “You talk to anybody in law enforcement, they’ll tell you that when in doubt, when the light bulb first goes off, you call it in. From the other perspective of the defense, an early report is great for innocent folks. You get the professionals in, those guys can spot this from miles away, and they also can spot when it’s a phony.”
Presentation, a prestigious parochial school of 830 girls established in 1962 where tuition costs $19,580 a year, has faced growing criticism from former students who said school officials mishandled their complaints of being sexually harassed or abused by teachers, staff or others. The accusations range from inappropriate touching to unwanted sexual advances and leering.
The number of former students claiming past abuse or harassment has climbed from two in October to 20 with accusations involving eight former teachers or other staff. They have garnered more than 6,400 signatures to an online petition demanding the school have an independent investigation of how it handled abuse complaints.
The two sides have traded barbs in recent months over efforts to meet to discuss the allegations and the school’s handling of reported abuse. The former students complained school officials were ignoring their demands for an independent investigation.
Presentation officials countered that they want to meet. But they say the former students and their lawyer were conditioning any meeting or mediation on demands that the school formally apologize, acknowledge a failure to properly handle abuse claims and remove the current and former principal from handling future abuse claims.
“Our hearts and minds are open to meeting and to find a resolution,” Singer said. “We realize these ladies feel they were wronged, we apologize for how they feel. Our doors are open. We hope they accept that offer.”
Staff Writer Robert Salonga contributed to this report.