Grace Leonis arrived as a freshman at San Jose’s Presentation High School feeling like a fish out of water. A standout swimmer, her prowess in the pool got her to the Catholic school for girls, where tuition runs $20,000 a year.
Leonis joined the water polo team but still struggled to make friends and says she often felt dejected and alone. She says she turned to her junior varsity water polo coach Jenna Roe for support. Leonis, who first met Roe at a water polo camp in August 2013, right before school started, says Roe lavished attention on her.
“I’ve never gotten attention like that before from anybody,” Leonis, now 18, said in a recent interview at her parents’ home in San Jose. “I liked it. I wanted to be around her.”
The two began texting each other. Leonis said she confessed to Roe, 24, that she had a crush on her.
“She told me she felt the same way, and at first, I was like, ‘That’s not right,’” Leonis said.
Leonis, who had just turned 14, said she felt conflicted about her coach’s response.
“It was so confusing ... but I just was like, ‘OK this older person likes me like, how?’” Leonis said. “I'm young. I'm not that attractive. She could get anybody she wants. I was curious, but looking back, she could have easily stopped. She could've called my mom and said, ‘You know, Grace says she has a crush on me, I think I should share that.’”
Leonis said that conversation marked the beginning of a relationship with her coach that spiraled completely out of control, culminating with an unwanted sexual experience in the back of Roe’s car at a water polo match that year.
But Leonis’s story isn’t just about alleged sexual abuse. It marks the most recent example of what more than a dozen former Presentation students allege is a pattern of covering up reports of sexual abuse at the school.
Reports to Presentation about Coach Jenna Roe
In Leonis’s case, NBC Bay Area has learned three students, including a varsity water polo player named Maya, say they went to athletic director Stacey Mallison in November 2013, just three months after Leonis met Roe. Maya, who asked that we not use her last name, said she and the other girls reported an inappropriate relationship between the two.
“I told Stacey that Jenna was texting Grace inappropriate pictures, she was texting her inappropriate things, and I told her how Jenna spends a ridiculous amount of time with Grace,” Maya said, recalling the other players told Mallison what they had seen as well.
Maya specifically remembers telling Mallison about nude photos that were exchanged between Leonis and Roe, and that Roe told Leonis she loved her.
“[Jenna] would play favorites with Grace. Jenna gave Grace a lot of rides after practice home, and she took my sister and Grace out to dinner all the time and so that's what we told Stacey, and then Stacey told us that she would take care of it, and she said ‘Thank you for reporting this to me,’ and that was it.”
Maya, who said Mallison seemed to take the report seriously, said no one ever spoke to her about it again. But shortly after that, Roe and two other water polo coaches disappeared from campus.
Roe did not respond to multiple requests for comment made by NBC Bay Area by phone and through social media.
School Never Called Police
Maya’s report was enough to get Roe dismissed from Presentation, but it did not trigger a call to authorities.
Sam Singer, a spokesman for Presentation High School, declined NBC Bay Area’s interview requests for this story but said in a written statement, “The female water polo coach was asked not to return to the school immediately after the first report of violations of school policy.”
Singer said the school did not contact police because there was “nothing reported to the school at the time which rose to the level of any reasonable suspicion of abuse.”
He did not respond to NBC Bay Area’s follow-up questions about what specific school policies the coach violated, or why the school did not feel Maya and the other players’ reports constituted reasonable suspicion of abuse.
The Best Friend and Witness
It was Maya’s younger sister, Emily, who asked Maya to go to school leaders. Emily was Leonis’s best friend and teammate on the JV water polo team
“The things that [Grace] told me, I didn't want to abuse that trust, but I knew that something wasn't OK so that's why I told my sister,” Emily said, recalling the tipping point when she asked Maya to go to the athletic director.
“We were all sitting underneath a blanket, and I noticed that Jenna’s hand started to touch Gracie’s leg and started to move up a little bit. I saw that and my heart kind of stopped.”
Emily said that incident was the culmination of many red flags she witnessed, but she didn’t know exactly how to respond. She said the fact coach Roe was a woman was also confusing and perhaps allowed the relationship to initially fly under the radar.
“I think because Jenna was a female, it was kind of hard to decipher between what is just the coach-player relationship and what is inappropriate because you’re not looking for that,” Emily said.
Grace Speaks Out
Leonis, for the first time, is now revealing the full extent of what she says happened between her and Roe. She recalled how the sexting turned physical, something she now views as sexual assault.
“I remember Jenna sending me a picture of a vibrator, asking me if I want her to buy me one,” Leonis said.
She recounted another message she received from Roe while at a San Francisco 49ers game with her father.
“She texted me telling me that she had just touched herself … thinking of me,” Leonis said. “And I’m sitting there next to my dad looking at this text, thinking like, ‘What if he saw that?’ I felt so grossed out that this grown woman did things to herself from thinking about me. My mind couldn’t process that one.”
Sexting progressed into physical touching.
“It first started with just leg touching, like touching my legs, getting close,” Leonis said.
What happened in the back seat of Roe’s car after a water polo game in November 2013, Leonis said, plunged her into four years of deep depression, anxiety and self-blame.
“The main thing that I remember is just the weight on top of me because I didn’t want to look at her, I didn’t want to talk,” Leonis said. “I completely shut down. My whole body turned to stone and I just remember staring out at the roof of the car.”
“She started doing things,” Leonis said. “She would feel my breasts under my shirt, trying to kiss my neck, trying to kiss me. Kissing her kind of made me sick so I just was not [kissing her back]. But she penetrated me.”
Roe had offered to drive Leonis and Emily to the tournament, and Leonis remembers the long ride home.
“I’m just numb. I reach for Emily’s hand in the backset and she's holding my hand the whole ride, and I’m just sobbing,” Leonis said.
Leonis said it would be years before she ever told anyone what happened at that tournament.
Police Get Involved
Leonis’s mom Dina Leonis says she still struggles with what happened to her daughter, sometimes blaming herself for trusting the coach.
“I have guilt. I have shame. I feel I didn't protect her. It hurts me to my core,” Dina said.
She said she thought Roe was a confidant for her daughter, not a predator. She said the school never notified her about Roe’s dismissal.
“My friend said to me, ‘I heard Jenna Roe was fired over an inappropriate relationship with your daughter,’” Dina said. “I said, ‘What?’ I freaked out.”
After trying to get answers from school officials, Dina said she eventually spoke directly with Principal Mary Miller, who explained to her why Roe was dismissed.
“She said, ‘I cannot tell you why she was fired, but I will tell you that she broke three rules in our handbook: she put Grace in her car, she came to your home, and she said she texted Grace for reasons other than sports and events at the school."
Dina said she could not understand why the school never called police, so in March 2014, she reported the incident to police herself.
“I told them that I found out my daughter’s coach was texting her 30 to 40 times a day,” Dina said. “Some things were sexually-related. She told my daughter she loved her.”
Dina said police spoke to witnesses and collected evidence from Grace’s phone. At one point, she said, detectives even congratulated Dina and her husband.
“He high-fived my husband and he told us we had a case that was looking good,” Dina said. “Then it just stopped.”
The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office said it did not file charges in 2014 due to insufficient evidence.
“We know that this was a difficult decision for the family to hear,” said assistant district attorney Terry Harman in a written statement. “Our office remains vigilant when it comes to the protection of children and the legal steps officials and others need to follow when they hear of potential criminal abuse. We strongly encourage anyone who had information about an apparent crime to call law enforcement immediately.”
Complicating matters for investigators at the time was the fact that Grace did not originally cooperate with law enforcement. She says she was terrified of her friends and family finding out about what had transpired between her and Roe.
“All I had was pure fear of everyone finding out,” Leonis said. “My friends, my family, the teachers, Mary Miller. If they would have just interviewed me and were nice and slow and comfortable, maybe I would have said something. I was just terrified.”
That kind of fear and denial from a sexual abuse survivor is a common response, according to Michael Leininger, a retired detective who spent 28 years with the San Jose Police Department investigating sex crimes against children. He’s now investigating the reports of abuse at Presentation High School with local attorney Robert Allard on behalf of “Make Pres Safe” – a group that now counts more than 20 graduates with accusations against more than 10 teachers, dating all the way back to the mid-1980’s.
“You’re demanding a tremendous amount from a victim,” Leininger said. “When you interview him or her it’s a very traumatic time in their life. It’s normally an event that will follow them for the rest of their lives.”
Leininger said the school clearly violated mandated reporting laws when it did not immediately call police after hearing from Maya and her two teammates.
“Stacey [Mallison] should have immediately contacted Child Protective Services or law enforcement as directed by law,” he said. “She had a reasonable suspicion. It’s crystal clear she failed to do so. We know that she notified [principal] Mary Miller. Mary Miller failed to do so. It was a very, very toxic situation.”
A Renewed Effort
The San Jose Police Department confirms it is now actively investigating whether the school violated mandated reporting laws, but won’t say whether that investigation is specifically tied to Leonis’s case.
However, sources with knowledge of the investigation say detectives have interviewed new witnesses. Leonis, who hasn’t spoken to Roe since the coach was fired, says she’s revealed new information to officers about the extent of what happened to her.
The Leonis family went into mediation with Presentation during Grace’s sophomore year and reached an undisclosed settlement. The school did not acknowledge liability and Grace left the school shortly after. Last year, after dealing with years of self-blame and shame, Grace attempted to take her own life.
“For a while I was like I’m never going to be able to do what I want to do [with my life],” Leonis said. "My whole life is kind of ruined.”
But Leonis said after reading an op-ed written last year by another Presentation student, Kathryn Leehane, about her reports of sexual abuse and misconduct involving a Spanish teacher in 1990, she realized she was not alone.
“I’m like, I’m not the only one at Pres who was abused?” she said.
It started a new chapter for her, and she now hopes to be that life-saver for someone else.
“I want every victim to know that no matter how it happened, it is not your fault,” she said. “You can speak up, let every story be known no matter how small or how big it seems compared to everyone else's. If someone wants to talk to me after this, come to me. I will be an open ear. I want to help.”
Leonis says she’s healing from what happened four years ago, focused on college, and coaching the next wave of swimmers at her local swim club.
“I’m strong now and I’m going to stand up for myself,” she said.