He gave her sweets, wrote her loving notes in French, and kissed her cheeks and hands. That’s what Presentation High School class of 1987 graduate Leslie Gelfand remembers of the teacher she met during her freshman year. Over time, she says, the affection and attention made her uneasy.
“He would give me chocolates, he would give me calligraphy pens,” Gelfand said. “And then, he gave me a very expensive leather satchel for my books.”
Now, as a grown woman in her 40s, she believes she was groomed by a teacher who would later be accused of sexually molesting one of her classmates and inappropriately touching another student just a few years later.
“What we know now about child predators, he was absolutely grooming me,” Gelfand said. “I was a good student. I never questioned authority. I was always polite, and I think that's why he chose me.”
Gelfand said her parents tried to report the odd behavior by teacher John Fernandez to school Principal Marian Stuckey with a letter they hand-delivered to the school’s office in 1987. It is a letter the school has recently denied receiving. In an email to NBC Bay Area, spokeswoman Samantha LoCurto wrote, “We have no knowledge of this letter, and no one recalls receiving it. This is the first time that we have become aware of it.”
Gelfand remembers differently.
“I do know that [Ms. Stuckey] told Mr. Fernandez because he came up to me in the hallway that week and asked me, 'Why did your parents send that letter?' And I responded by blushing and just saying, 'What letter?”'
Fernandez remained at the school for nearly 20 years. He was recognized as Teacher of the Year in 1995 and died of cancer in 2015.
A woman NBC Bay Area is identifying as “Jane Doe” says Fernandez sexually molested her on an overnight school trip. When she reported the incident to school administrators, she says they pressured her into retracting her story and never reported the incident to police. In a statement posted to a new website launched by Presentation alumnae this month, Doe wrote, “Mr. Fernandez sexually abused me. I was only 16 years old.”
“We were friends since we were 6 years old, and she was a different person,” Doe's friend Cheryl Hodgin Marshall said. She recalls with anger the response the girls received when they went to Stuckey in 1990 to report what happened.
“Ms. Stuckey told her to look her in the eyes and made her repeat that it was a dream, it didn’t happen,” Hodgin Marshall said. “She said, ‘Sometimes when you dream, things that seem so real when you wake up, and so it must've been a dream.' And she kept asking her that, and so [Jane] was so embarrassed she finally said, ‘OK fine, it was a dream,'” Hodgin Marshall said.
She said they tried once again to report the incident to a trusted adult about a month later. This time it was to Vice Principal Mary Miller. Miller is currently the school principal and is slated for a promotion in 2019 to a newly created role as president of Presentation High School.
According to Doe and Hodgin Marshall, Miller told the girls that if Jane Doe was not prepared to face Fernandez in court in front of her family and say what happened, then they needed to stop talking about the incident.
Hodgin Marshall says she still remembers the harsh words that came next.
“You know Cheryl, walls have ears, so you better just be careful what you’re saying and who you’re saying it to.” Hodgin Marshall said, adding “The reason I know that that was the almost exact quote is because I'd never heard that expression before, and I was a child who really loved my school, was super involved … and I was surprised by the tone, as if I had been doing something wrong seeking help.”
When asked if Stuckey or Miller ever said what Doe and Hodgin Marshall recalled, LoCurto replied in a statement, “Absolutely not.”
However, the school does not deny receiving complaints about Fernandez.
Kathryn Leehane, who nearly three decades later would write about her experience in the Washington Post, says Fernandez groped her and showed her a nude photograph of another woman. When she reported the incident to the school for the first time in 1993, Leehane said the school never called police.
NBC Bay Area has confirmed Presentation never contacted police or Child Protective Services to report the sexual abuse or misconduct allegations.
“[The principal’s] next phone call should have been to the police,” Stacy Castle, chair of the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Santa Clara County said.
Castle says there’s no excuse for schools to not call police after receiving a report of sexual abuse or misconduct. The law requires people who work with children such as principals, day care providers and teachers to report to police whenever there’s a “reasonable suspicion” of abuse.
“It's not the principal's responsibility to research or investigate,” Castle said.
“Yes, it is appropriate to ask questions to get enough information so that you can pass it on, but there's a fine line there,” she added. “You're not doing the research, you're not investigating.”
Castle said children shouldn’t feel uncomfortable or intimidated for reporting potential abuse.
“You may be opening the doors so that those children who have suffered some abuse can come forward in a safe environment where they know they're going to be heard,” she said.
Ten former students and a coach have now gone public with accusations of sexual assault, harassment and inappropriate touching.
The mother of a former student also recently came forward, saying her daughter was sexually assaulted by a staff member in 2013.
Reflecting on what’s happened at her former high school since she graduated, Gelfand says a lot of trauma could have been prevented had the school simply acted on her parents’ letter.
“The school was aware for years before Jane Doe and Kate experienced their assault, and it’s heartbreaking to me.”