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SF principal: Molestation case ‘devastated’ our school for years

Michael Essien, principal at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle school in his office on March 3, 2023. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Students, teachers and other employees at a San Francisco middle school took years to recover from feelings of guilt and fear that began to unfold after a seventh grade girl was found crying at school, the principal said.

That incident, as well as information from other children who also came forward, led to the arrest of physical education teacher Donavan Harper on charges of lewd acts with a minor by use of force.

It also left campuswide wounds among teachers ashamed that they didn’t detect the abuse earlier and children who were afraid something like that could happen to them.

“There was a tremendous strain on our teachers and staff for years,” said Michael Essien, principal at Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School in the Bayview, in reference to the 2017 incident that launched an extended crisis.

Guilt-stricken school employees blamed themselves. Campus leaders had to cancel professional development meetings, give people time off and hold listening sessions with staff and students. Of several girls Essien said came forward, at least two filed lawsuits blaming educators for failing to recognize alleged abuse, according to court records. In November, one case settled for nearly $53,000 and almost $14,000 in medical expenses.

Michael Essien, the principal at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School, greets students in the center of campus on March 3, 2023. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

It took about three years for the campus to truly recover, Essien said.

“For this to happen under our noses and nobody saw it: We were all devastated,” Essien said. “It didn't happen to just those girls. It happened to the entire community.”

Other cases of sexual misconduct are not always well known. A recent investigation by The Standard showed that, since 2017, the district entered into resignation agreements with at least 19 employees accused of sexual misconduct, a common practice nationwide but one that critics say allows predators to escape punishment.

Widespread and long-lasting trauma from such events isn’t unique to Essien’s school. 

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, a government-funded organization run by UCLA and Duke University, produced guidelines for administrators at schools where sexual misconduct has occurred. The advice goes beyond helping the immediate victim, and recommends steps to make sure the rest of the student body feels safe and to look out for harassment related to a sexual abuse incident.

When Cassondra Curiel, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, started teaching at Visitacion Valley Middle School in 2010, it was the school year after a music teacher was accused of molesting three female students under the age of 14.

United Educators of San Francisco President Cassondra Curiel | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

“You’ve got years and years of unpacking to do and recovery,” she said.

Even for students who leave the school, trauma can follow them in the form of an “almost pariah-type status,” Curiel said.

A former student of Curiel’s went on to San Francisco’s Lowell High School, where they were teased so badly about going to a school with “a pedo teacher” that they were afraid to acknowledge they attended his class.

The family of a girl who said she was abused at MLK Middle sued San Francisco Unified School District. Court filings claimed that the school administration should have been alert to the misconduct and that the school didn’t do enough to help the girl after she was abused. The case ended with a negotiated settlement last year.

Beyond the trauma, the response by Essien and his team was actually an improvement over what can sometimes happen. School staff called the police, notified school district authorities and conducted an internal investigation, Essien explained. The state of California soon rescinded Harper’s teaching credential.

Students play soccer at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Harper ultimately pleaded guilty to sexual battery and received one year in prison and three on probation, the Marin Independent Journal reported at the time.

Former San Francisco middle school PE teacher Anthony Sylvestri was twice allowed to resign following sexual misconduct allegations.

Another employee, Robert Gamino, netted complaints from 30 female students at John O’Connell High School. Gamino also resigned quietly under a settlement agreement.

Sylvestri declined to comment, and Gamino couldn’t be reached by The Standard. 

“If you’re hearing stuff [about] adults and kids, […] you can’t have this linger as a rumor,” said Essien. “We need to always err on the side of safety.”