Graduates of a prestigious San Jose Catholic school for girls who say they were victims of sexual misconduct have launched a website to tell their stories in their own words.
The "Make Pres Safe" website includes a timeline spanning three decades that details each allegation of misconduct at Presentation High School. The site, which includes the personal statements of many accusers, blames school administrators for failing to report many of the allegations to police or Child Protectice Services when they were brought to the school’s attention.
The driving forces behind the website are Kathryn Leehane and Cheryl Hodgin Marshall, who graduated from the school nearly three decades ago and say school administrators failed to act when they came to them with separate stories of abuse. They worked with San Jose attorney Robert Allard and his team of investigators, who have not sued the school but are actively looking into multiple claims of sexual misconduct.
Leehane, whose essay in the Washington Post last year recounted how she was groped, kissed, and shown a pornographic photo by Spanish teacher John Fernandez in 1990, was the first Presentation graduate to go public with her story. Her essay, which she says was meant to bring personal closure, ended up sparking a social media firestorm and prompted other graduates to come forward with their own stories. Leehane said she told current Principal Mary Miller about what happened to her on separate occasions in 1993 and 1994, but police were never notified, and the teacher was allowed to teach at the school until he retired in 2004. Fernandez died of cancer in 2015.
Leehane ultimately contacted police herself in 1996 but said the statute of limitations had run out by then. Leehane also wrote a letter to the Diocese of San Jose in 1999 about what happened, but said she never received a response. The Diocese previously stated to NBC Bay Area that it first became aware of Leehane’s accusations when the Washington Post essay was published late last year. When asked about the letter, the Diocese told NBC Bay Area in an email that it could neither confirm nor deny the letter was ever received.
Leehane said the website was created to give a voice to the survivors of sexual abuse.
“My hope is that my fellow alums, members of the various boards, and every single person invested in the well-being of the students at PHS read the victim’s stories – hear their voices – and ensure the PHS administration and board do the right thing: take responsibility for their mistakes, apologize to the survivors, and make permanent changes to protect all of the young women entrusted to their care,” Leehane said in an email to NBC Bay Area.
Hodgin Marshall was not a victim of abuse herself but says she went to school administrators on multiple occasions in 1990 when her best friend confided she’d been sexually abused by Fernandez while on a school-sponsored trip. Hodgin Marshall and her best friend, identified on the website as Jane Doe, say former Principal Marian Stuckey and Miller pressured them into staying silent. A spokesperson for Presentation High School said they could not discuss the specific allegations because of privacy concerns but confirmed to NBC Bay Area that the school never reported the accusation to police, a possible violation of California mandated reporter laws.
While the school has not responded to each individual accusation, it has disputed some of the claims in email correspondence with NBC Bay Area. Other claims, the school said, were never brought to its attention until the accusers spoke at a news conference.
What started with Leehane and Hodgin Marshall has now snowballed into something much larger. The website contains a dozen personal statements, 10 by former students, one by a former teacher and one by the parent of a student who said her daughter was sexually assaulted by an athletics coach between 2013 and 2014. Most of the accounts come from students who say they were victims of abuse or harassment themselves. Others say they reported abuse to school administrators but were not satisfied with the school’s response. The stories begin in 1984 and continue through last year.
Presentation High School and the Diocese of San Jose have declined multiple interview requests for this story.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for the school said:
“We sincerely regret that any graduate of Presentation felt unsafe because of anything they perceive the administration did or did not do. We cannot erase these feelings or change the perceptions. But we can learn from the opinions expressed and move forward with even greater resolve. Ensuring the safety and well-being of our young women remains our highest priority. The current PHS Board of Directors has reviewed the past investigations, and they are supportive of the efforts of the PHS administration to address concerns. The Board has expressed its full confidence in the school’s administration, both in the past and the present, in providing a safe environment for all students.”
In addition to the timeline and personal statements, the “Make Pres Safe” website also contains previous statements made by Presentation High School and its Board of Trustees. It also contains a petition with thousands of signatures demanding an independent investigation into the allegations, as well as resources for survivors of sexual abuse.
To follow "Make Pres Safe" on social media, use the links included below: