Two former Presentation High students on Wednesday spoke publicly for the first time about allegations of sexual misconduct by a teacher at the prestigious all-girls Catholic school in San Jose.
Kathryn Leehane and Cheryl Hodgin Marshall, who graduated in 1991, were accompanied by attorney Robert Allard at a Wednesday press conference to discuss the accusations, which date back nearly three decades.
Leehane first recounted being groped and shown a pornographic photo by her high school Spanish teacher in a recent essay published in the Washington Post, but has not spoken publicly about the allegations until now. She said she’s doing so in an effort to make positive change at the school she still holds in high regard.
“Throughout all of this my biggest concern has been for the safety and welfare of those young women,” Leehane said. “I love Presentation. It’s a wonderful school and I want all of those women to thrive.”
Ex-Students Discuss Alleged Misconduct at Presentation High
Hodgin Marshall, also speaking publicly for the first time, said her close friend “Jane” was molested by that same teacher in 1990.
Both women say they reported the incidents of sexual misconduct to trusted school leaders: Then principal Marian Stuckey and current principal Mary Miller who was vice principal in 1990.
“I told a trusted teacher about the molestation who then spoke with Jane and in turn immediately reported it to the principal,” Hodgin Marshall said. “Jane was called in to speak with the principal and afterward came to me in tears saying she did not feel that the principal believed her and that the principal suggested that Jane must have been dreaming it. We were both in disbelief and we didn’t know what to think.”
Hodgin Marshall said she and Jane heard nothing for approximately a month, so they went to Vice Principal Mary Miller.
“Once again we were in disbelief and in tears at the outcome,” she said. “Not only did we not get any help, she dismissed both of us with stern warnings to be careful of what we say.”
Miller, now the principal of the $20,000 per year private school, denied those claims. Stuckey did not respond to requests for comment but Presentation spokesperson Samantha LoCurto responded “absolutely not” regarding Hodgin Marshall’s allegation that Stuckey told Jane she “must have been dreaming.”
Presentation High Board of Directors Breaks Silence About Sexual Abuse Allegations
The accused teacher, John Fernandez, continued to teach at Presentation High School until he retired in 2004. He recently died of cancer in 2015.
"One thing has become alarmingly clear," Leehane said. "My abuse did not have to happen. The administration had notice going back to the mid-1980's that the teacher who abused me was a problem. The school had numerous opportunities to deal with him. Tragically, I was not his first -- or his last -- victim."
School principal Mary Miller continues to decline interview requests from NBC Bay Area. In a written statement released after Wednesday’s press conference, Miller “strongly” disputed the claims made by Leehane, Hodgin Marshall, and Allard.
“For the attorney or others to suggest that at some point in the past PHS could have handled certain cases in a different manner is open to interpretation and is taken to heart,” Miller wrote. “However, for anyone to suggest that PHS has in any manner covered up or condoned any instance of sexual abuse is an outright lie.”
In the statement, Miller said the administration conducted an investigation into the allegations when they were first brought to the school’s attention.
"PHS conducted an investigation more than 25 years ago into this matter as well as other claims made today. There is no new information provided by this personal injury attorney or the former students," Miller said in the statement. "Due to privacy and confidentiality, we cannot disclose the details or outcomes of our investigations; we sincerely wish that we could reveal more information. Each case described today was investigated and action taken based upon the information provided to the school at the time."
But NBC Bay Area learned Wednesday that investigation did not include informing authorities.
In an email Wednesday, a spokesperson for the school confirmed what Leehane and Hodgin Marshall said they suspected all along: the allegations were never reported to police or Child Protective Services.
Leehane contacted the San Jose Police Department herself in 1996. Leehane said the officer did a thorough job investigating her accusations, but because years had passed since the alleged abuse, there wasn’t much the police could do.
“What we can tell you is that prior to the report that was made to law enforcement, Presentation has not been provided with sufficient information with which to form a reasonable suspicion of childhood sexual abuse,” PHS spokesperson Samantha LoCurto wrote. “The school did not report the matter to CPS or police.”
Last Wednesday, the Presentation High School board sent a letter to parents defending Miller. The board in the letter said the administration satisfied its due diligence in the investigative process.
Requests to speak with Miller were declined by Presentation High School.
“There were active attempts on behalf of this administration to suppress the sharing of information about crimes which were committed on this campus,” attorney Robert Allard said.
“If you have a reasonable suspicion that a sex crime has occurred, the law tells you you must call the police and report it. You're not to investigate it. You're not to ask the victim questions. You're not to ask the teacher questions. Your job is to report and apparently that message got lost in translation with this administration.”
At Wednesday's press conference, Leehane also shared responses to letters she wrote in college to Principal Miller. She says she decided to report Fernandez’s actions only after learning about her classmate’s alleged abuse by the same teacher.
Leehane said the administration never responded to her first letter, and only replied to a second letter after she sent copies to several other teachers.
In a response to Leehane, Miller wrote back, saying in part:
“As I said before, the welfare of the students is my number one concern. But I am also concerned with the welfare and reputation of our faculty members. John [Fernandez] needs to know what you are accusing him of so he has the opportunity to respond. I would appreciate that any further correspondence regarding this matter be directed to me only.”
In addition to holding Wednesday’s press conference, Allard said he recently sent a letter to the Presentation board demanding a public reckoning by the administration, an apology, and a commitment to train its staff.
However, after reading Miller’s Wednesday statement about the press conference, Allard wrote to NBC Bay Area saying his team may have to reconvene after the holiday to “develop alternative courses of action.
“Most regrettably, the current administration at Presentation has chosen, in response to our public comments made today, to engage in personal attacks and deflect attention away from the sole issue raised, specifically, the school’s repeated failure to appropriately address reported incidents of sexual misconduct involving its staff. Since the allegations as described are indefensible, the more appropriate response would have been to, as requested, acknowledge past failures, apologize and enthusiastically commit to making a safer child protection system so that all involved can move forward in a productive direction. The school’s response, however, make it clear that these demands will never be met and that it will continue to hide behind alleged “confidentiality” as opposed to making any attempt to justify its actions.”
Although Leehane and Hodgin Marshall were the only Presentation graduates to share their stories Wednesday, Allard said his team is in the process of investigating claims of sexual misconduct by other alums. He said the allegations go well beyond John Fernandez.
Earlier this month, Presentation put two current teachers on leave while the school and police conduct an investigation into allegations of inappropriate behavior against them.
Multiple sources who spoke to NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit say the allegations against one of those teachers occurred earlier this year.
NBC Bay Area obtained an email sent to Principal Miller by a Presentation staff member in March that stated the staff member witnessed “disturbing behavior” by a male teacher.
In that email, the staffer said she was concerned the teacher was acting inappropriately with a current student.
“Many of the girls came up to me during the tournament and told me various times that they found [him] creepy and didn’t like how he talked to them or treated them,” the staff member wrote. “A few of them mentioned times where he had inappropriately touched their hair or made them feel uncomfortable.”
That email was written in March of this year, more than seven months before he was eventually put on leave.
San Jose police say they are investigating accusations against various teachers, both past and present. They encourage any potential victims or anyone with information to come forward.