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Lowell High School teacher accused of trading college recommendation letters for a favor

Lowell High School students leave campus during lunch hour in the Sunset District SFUSD campus on May 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

As the fall 2020 semester drew to a close at San Francisco’s prestigious Lowell High School, a student hoping to earn a B in "American Democracy" asked his teacher for an extra credit assignment.

The teacher, Adam Michels, obliged. But Michels wanted a favor in return. He asked the student to speak with a local reporter who was investigating a #MeToo scandal that was then unfolding at Lowell—and which included complaints against Michels.

The student wasn’t the only person to grapple with an alleged educational quid pro quo that semester. Michels asked a total of four unnamed students to speak out on his behalf after they approached him for college recommendations or extra credit, the San Francisco Unified School District later found. 

These requests were inappropriate and could be grounds for termination, the district concluded in a scathing 2021 report on its investigation into Michels, who has been a credentialed educator for over 30 years.

During the district investigations and in an email to The Standard, Michels, who also teaches AP psychology, denied that his requests were meant as an exchange of favors.

Michels’ attempts to get students to defang unfavorable news coverage took place as a series of controversies rocked Lowell, a highly selective public school that looms large in city politics

An empty hallway at Lowell High School in San Francisco | Camille Cohen/The Standard

As the pandemic unfolded, students and alumni went public on social media with sexual harassment and assault allegations against other Lowell students and teachers. A plan to switch the school to a lottery-based admissions system was eventually derailed, but not before it played a central role in a 2022 recall of three San Francisco school board members that made national news. 

Administrators ultimately suspended Michels for 10 days, according to records obtained by The Standard. He remains an 11th and 12th grade social studies teacher at Lowell, tasked with instructing seniors on the principles of American democracy.

‘Could You Do Me a Favor?’

According to records obtained by The Standard, the San Francisco Unified School District was “flooded” with complaints against Michels in the summer of 2020, though the document does not specify a number. But that wasn’t the first time allegations of misconduct had been levied against him and sustained. 

Administrators had reprimanded him in December 2019 related to a previous complaint from a colleague who had reported Michels made her uncomfortable.

The complaints over the summer of 2020 led to another reprimand that August for “unprofessional and unwelcome physical and verbal interactions” that made some students uncomfortable, according to the suspension notice. 

Allegations ranged from calling certain girls “partiers” to stroking the collarbone of a student while complimenting her dress. 

During the fall 2020 semester, a reporter from KQED began investigating sexual harassment allegations against Lowell teachers. When Michels became aware of the developing news story, he vigorously denied sexually harassing students.

“I compliment students, and I tease them sometimes, but it is in front of 35 other students, and I have never sexually harassed anyone,” he told KQED.

However, he also asked three students to speak to the reporter, Holly McDede, on his behalf while providing college recommendations. 

Students linger around campus after the school day concludes at Lowell High School on Jan. 12, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

After giving one student a recommendation in November 2020, Michels wrote in an email, "I was wondering if you could do me a favor?" according to the school district’s suspension document. The student initially agreed, but the student’s parents did not grant permission for their child to speak to the KQED reporter.

The district reprimanded Michels again in December 2020, explicitly instructing him to stop asking students to “say nice things” about him.

It didn’t stop there. One day later, the student in Michels’ "American Democracy" class approached him to request extra credit. 

The fact that Michels then asked the student to speak to a reporter upon giving him a B to effectively help clear the teacher’s name was “beyond comprehension,” the district wrote. It also disputed how Michels characterized the crux of the KQED story to his students. Rather than an investigative piece that could reveal career-ending allegations, he, at one point, described it as a more mundane story about social media use at the school. (The story was not published until February 2021.)

In an interview detailed in the district’s investigation, Michels denied that he had intended the request to be an exchange.

“Mr. Michels, would you address with me that however else you may have risked your job in this case, trading college recommendations for personal favors is exactly the kind of thing that teachers can lose jobs for?” a district representative asked Michels in an interview.

“Yes, but I disagree that was what I was doing,” he answered. “But I understand it appears that way.”

The report also mentions an incident in which Michels showed a picture of the decomposing, severed head of English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Benthem in his "American Democracy" class, a choice for which he was also reprimanded. In the interview with the district, Michels said the image served an educational purpose: Bentham wanted his body preserved after his death so that it could serve as an inspiration to future generations. Yet his decomposing head largely made people feel sick, Michels explained in the interview.

One of those people was a 17-year-old student, who complained about the teaching method.

A screenshot of a transcript of an exchange between a staff member of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and Lowell teacher Adam Michels wherein he defends himself against the misconduct claims levied against him. l The Standard

In February 2021, the district determined that the requests for personal favors in exchange for recommendations or extra credit were exploitative and, after numerous reprimands, ultimately issued Michels a 10-day suspension.

The KQED article was published days after the district’s decision and included testimony from unnamed students and alumni who said they enjoyed Michels’ class but could see how his humor could offend people. It is not clear if any of them were students in the suspension report. 

In a message to The Standard, Michels said that he regretted making students uncomfortable.

“It upset me terribly and continues to upset me,” he said. “I never would have guessed that this student felt that way.” 

He said it also made him reconsider how he teaches.

“I had to reexamine how I spoke to students, particularly my use of sarcasm and the types of examples I would use in class,” Michels said. “I realized that what might have been considered humorous or acceptable in the past was no longer viewed the same way.”

Tackling Misconduct

Lowell’s pressure-cooker culture is so well known that it became the subject of a PBS documentary called Try Harder!, released last year. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s late husband, Richard Blum, and author Daniel Handler—better known as Lemony Snicket—are among the school’s famous alumni. 

But that wasn’t the only issue at play, a 2021 Lowell graduate told The Standard.

Shavonne Hines-Foster poses for a photograph at a local school near her home in San Francisco on Oct. 12, 2020. | Nick Otto | Source: Nick Otto for The Standard

“[Michels] already had infractions before the story came out,” said Shavonne Hines-Foster, a former student delegate to the school board. “As much as they say, ‘Oh, we’re handling the issue,’... they still have people in the shadows.” 

The Standard has found that, since 2017, the district quietly entered into 17 resignation agreements with employees accused of sexual misconduct, a term that encompasses everything from telling an inappropriate joke to alleged sexual assault of a student. In one of these cases, the district allowed another Lowell teacher to resign after he told a bawdy anecdote about his youthful sexcapades in class. 

The San Francisco Unified School District declined to comment on Michels’ case but maintained that it has a disciplinary process that follows California law and honors teachers’ collective bargaining agreements. 

“SFUSD takes allegations of misconduct, harassment and abuse very seriously,” said spokesperson Laura Dudnick in an email. “When SFUSD learns of an allegation against an employee, we take every step to investigate and respond to the matter within the scope of our jurisdiction.”

For his part, Michels said he has changed how he teaches and recognizes that his words can be taken the wrong way.

“I want to be an excellent teacher,” he said in an email, “but now I try to stop myself before saying something that could make some students laugh but make other students feel uncomfortable.”