LA MESA ” In response to an investigator's findings that they did not do enough to protect students against teacher sexual abuse, Helix High School officials defended their actions and policies in a written report released Wednesday.
“Helix vehemently refutes the conclusions by (the investigator) that Helix administrators violated the law or created a culture where sexual misconduct by teachers was enabled,” the school said in a 24- page response to the investigator's findings.
The La Mesa charter high school, where four former teachers have been convicted of sex crimes involving students during the past two years, took issue with findings of investigator Robert Price of San Diego-based ESI International. The investigator, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, was hired by the Grossmont Union High School District last year to examine the circumstances of the four incidents and report any systemic problems...
The first two cases involved music teachers who also served as band directors. The other two involved teachers who were involved with the same female student. All four are no longer working at the school.
The investigator found that employees mishandled the first complaint involving former music teacher Frank Palumbo, who was convicted of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor in 2007 and sentenced to five years' probation.
The investigator's report stated in October 2006 students and a parent reported a suspicious relationship between Palumbo and a former student to Helix employees, who conducted an “ineffective investigation” and did not report it to police or Child Protective Services immediately as required by state law.
The girl's father complained to police, who investigated and arrested Palumbo in December 2006 after he had resigned from the school.
Helix administrators said they discussed the complaint with Palumbo shortly before his resignation but didn't find evidence of child abuse.
“Spending more time with female students than male students is not child abuse,” the school said in its report.
Helix officials denied the investigator's finding that they took no meaningful action to prevent future cases. They said they conducted a meeting with all faculty and staff after the first arrest to “review the unacceptable nature of Mr. Palumbo's conduct” and make clear they would fire violators.
School officials said they held a training session to review misconduct and consequences after the second incident involving former music teacher Jessica Ashley Kahal. She pleaded guilty in 2007 to having unlawful sexual intercourse with a 17-year-old male student.
School officials disputed the investigator's finding they didn't immediately report the incident to authorities, saying principal Doug Smith first had to conduct an investigation to arrive at a reasonable suspicion. Smith said he interviewed witnesses, placed Kahal on administrative leave, contacted the victim and his parents as well as police and Child Protective Services – all within the same day.
Helix officials said they cooperated with the investigation but believe Price objected to their notifying employees being interviewed of their right to have a union representative present. Helix officials also wanted a representative present during interviews with witnesses.
In their response, school officials denied that administrators didn't fully cooperate with the investigation and issued inaccurate information to the public to minimize damage to the school's reputation.
The report didn't go into detail about the other two cases, saying the investigator did not make any accusations of procedural failure. Former business teacher Jeff Wenham last year pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of committing a lewd act in public with a 17-year-old female student and failing to report another teacher's inappropriate relationship with a student. That teacher is believed to be Garry Wilcox, who was convicted last year of having sex with the girl.
Helix hired an ethics consultant last year to develop additional safeguards to protect students against sexual abuse by teachers and other employees.