San Jose

Presentation High Administrators Address Sexual Assault Allegations Against Former Spanish Teacher

After an incendiary Op-Ed published in the Washington Post last month accused a former teacher of sexually assaulting two students nearly thirty years ago, school principal Mary Miller addressed the claims the incidents were swept under the rug.

Teachers and counselors spoke to students Monday at San Jose’s Presentation High School, an all-girls Catholic school, about sexual assault allegations dating back nearly three decades that involve a former Spanish teacher.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed essay, Presentation High graduate Kathryn Leehane accuses former Spanish teacher John Fernandez of sexually assaulting her and a classmate in separate incidents when they were students in 1990.

Fernandez left the school in 2004 and died of cancer in 2015. As of Monday, a tribute to Fernandez had been removed from the school’s website.

Last Friday, Principal Mary Miller sent a letter to parents acknowledging the allegations. In the letter, she wrote an investigation was conducted 25 years ago, but due to privacy and confidentiality, she could not disclose the details of the probe.

Most parents on campus had no comment Monday.

Sharon Lohbeck, the mother of a sophomore student, said she was concerned about the letter, but overall, her experience with Presentation has been “phenomenal” over the years.

“We told (our daughter) you don’t judge until you get the whole story,” Lohbeck said.

Heather Jacobson, a junior at Presentation, said school administrators told students they were there to support them, and they have policies in place to deal with these types of allegations.

Jacobson's sister Rachel echoed her thoughts.

“They are good about teaching us to come forward to people and making sure we have someone we can trust at school,” she said.

Leehane’s essay, published Oct. 20, prompted a flurry of online conversations among Presentation graduates and parents. New allegations also surfaced against Fernandez.

According to multiple sources, at least one other student said she was sexually assaulted by Fernandez in the late 1980s. Others are now posting about their experiences with the teacher on Facebook.

One graduate wrote in a post that Fernandez would “often” give her a kiss on the cheek or put his hand on her knee. She said he also made “inappropriate comments.”

Leehane’s accusations go much further.

In the essay, Leehane accuses Fernandez of groping her breast and showing her a pornographic photo while preparing for an upcoming poetry competition. According to the essay, Leehane reported the incident to police in 1996 but was told the investigation came to a dead end.

The essay also blames school administrators at the time, including former Principal Marian Stuckey and current Principal Mary Miller, for failing to act when Leehane’s classmate reported being sexually assaulted by Fernandez the same year.

“I buried my secret for a couple of years until my classmate 'Jane' (not her real name) confessed to me in a flood of whispers that this same man had sexually assaulted her,” Leehane wrote in the essay. “When she told the administrators, they scared her into taking back the story.”

Sources who spoke with NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit confirmed “Jane” reported being sexually assaulted to both Stuckey and Miller shortly after it happened in 1990 and say the allegations were brushed aside.

Presentation declined an interview request from NBC Bay Area to speak with Miller about what she knew and when she knew it. In an email, however, a spokesperson said “the matter was referred to (Child Protective Services.)”

The school declined to say which specific incident was referred to CPS and has not yet stated what year that report was made. They declined to reveal if any allegations against Fernandez were reported to police.

The Diocese of San Jose also declined to speak with NBC Bay Area but said in a written statement it was not aware of the allegations against Fernandez until they recently became public.

“We can’t say who knew what when it happened," the statement said. "We became aware of the situation at Presentation High School the same time the public did. It is the expectation that anything like this that comes to light be reported to the Superintendent of Schools and the Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults who will work together in tandem to address it. If it is a current situation the expectation is that the school will contact the authorities and address the situation before contacting the Superintendent of Schools and the Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults.”

A petition circulating on the website directed at current Principal Miller now has more than 1,800 signatures.

“We are outraged by the nature of the accusations against former Presentation French and Spanish teacher John Fernandez,” the petition states.

“We are outraged by the apparent lack of response by the Presentation administration once charges of abuse were reported to Marian Stuckey and Mary Miller beginning in 1990. We are outraged that John Fernandez was allowed access to thousands of young women while in a position of authority for twenty years.”

Attempts by NBC Bay Area to locate any living relatives of Fernandez for comment have so far been unsuccessful.

NBC Bay Area is now investigating allegations of sexual misconduct against other teachers that have come out since Leehane’s article. 

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