San Diego

Southwestern College Withheld Public Records to Protect Professor Who Had Sex With Students

Investigators at Southwestern College discovered a professor with naked pictures of students and sex tapes, but the professor wasn't fired, and the incidents were hidden from students for years.

Investigators at Southwestern College discovered a professor with naked pictures of students and sex tapes he made with students in his office.

But the professor wasn't fired, and the incidents were hidden from students for years. Instead, he was allowed to settle and resign and then go to work at another local college.

But late Thursday afternoon, NBC 7 first broke the news that San Diego City College placed him on paid leave.

A spokesman told NBC 7 the district removed him from the classroom, while they "review the situation."

This initial report that prompted action by SDCC first broke on NBC 7's media partner, Voice of San Diego.

Reporter Katy Stegall says she waited years for SWC administrators to give her the public records - a choice some students say protected the professor over students' right to know.

Two years ago, SWC hired a private firm to investigate a student claim about her biology professor, Dr. John Tolli.

Tolli has a doctorate from MIT, and at one point, SWC paid him upwards of $120,000 a year to teach biology.

The student claimed Tolli had sex with her in his office, and that he used naked pictures of her to keep her quiet – a claim Tolli denies.

During their investigation, they found a "trove" of evidence - including nude pictures and sex tapes with several students, and a video of Tolli masturbating in his office – all on the professor's college-issued computer.

NBC 7 called, emailed, and knocked on the front door of an address linked to Tolli – but no one answered.

"It's disturbing to think someone would do that," says Paola Gutierrez, a student at SWC and a production assistant at the school paper, The Southwestern College Sun. "How this teacher made this student feel when it came to her own body, shaming her, saying how she would get in trouble, how no one would believe her."

The VOSD reporter who uncovered the investigation is a SWC student herself, who worked at the Sun. Katy Stegall first asked about the school's findings of the professor two years ago, but the records only became public now.

"It's not helping us," says Gutierrez. "It's not making things better. It just keeps the cycle of fear and mistrust between the administration and the students."

"That's a problem with this college," says The Sun adviser Max Branscomb. "They have a tendency to sweep things under the rug rather than to address problems head-on, and if you don't address them, they don't go away. They fester."

Branscomb says he's proud of his former student - but that pride is bittersweet.

"The professor is a very brilliant and talented man who I respected as a colleague," says Branscomb.

In a settlement agreement reached four months after the explosive investigation, Southwestern agreed to let Tolli resign, without fanfare, in June of last year.

"It makes me feel unsafe," says Gutierrez.

As to why SWC says it didn't go public until now, a prepared statement by a college spokeswoman reads:

"In providing this statement, Southwestern College has to carefully balance the public's right to know about the college's business with the privacy rights of employees, students, and others.

Southwestern College became aware of the allegations through a written complaint in the spring of 2017. The district immediately opened an investigation. Dr. Tolli was placed on paid administrative leave while the college conducted the investigation.

A thorough investigation sustained 12 allegations against Dr. Tolli.

This is a complex matter, and there were many considerations. In the end, it was in the best interest of the college that Dr. Tolli resign, which he did effective June 30, 2018."

As to the question of not releasing the records to the Southwestern College Sun, SWC said:

"This issue required us to balance the public interests in disclosure with the public interest in non-disclosure. The report not only implicates Dr. Tolli's potential privacy interests, but also the interests of students and others. We still have serious concerns for the interest of those other individuals. In the end, in consultation with district counsel, we have provided a redacted version of the investigation report."

San Diego City College hired Tolli as an instruction lab tech a month before his formal resignation at Southwestern College took effect, on June 1, 2018.

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