The San Diego Unified School District is facing two lawsuits in connection to a former special education teacher convicted of sexually abusing an underage student.
The allegations in both suits are damning, a high school student and a fellow teacher say the district knew the teacher was behaving inappropriately with coworkers and students and did nothing.
Former San Diego High School special education teacher Juan Carlos Herrera, 49, pleaded guilty in September to 11 felony counts for sexually abusing an underage student. He sexually abused her “almost daily,” and threatened to cut off her arms and legs if she told anyone, prosecutors said.
Now the student’s family is taking the high school and the district to court.
A 49-year-old high school special education teacher pleaded not guilty to sex crimes involving a 15-year-old student. NBC 7’s Catherine Garcia has more.(Published Wednesday, May 8, 2019)
"San Diego Unified, and specifically San Diego High School, dropped the ball,” said the family’s attorney, Jessica Pride. “They ignored the red flags. There were over a year of red flags, and they could have stopped this abuse from happening to my client."
In the civil complaint, Pride alleges the district ignored credible and disturbing complaints about Herrera from a high school security guard and a fellow teacher.
“I'm angry because I wasn't protected like I should have been,” says Vanessa Montgomery, a teacher at San Diego High School who is now also suing the district.
"They didn't protect me and they didn't protect our students,” says Montgomery. “And because of that look what's happened.”
NBC 7 obtained a copy of an email Montgomery sent to San Diego High’s principal and vice principal last May. In it, Montgomery describes vulgar sexual comments and gestures made by Herrera. In one instance, she says he poked her breast with a toothpick, put it in his mouth and winked at her.
Montgomery says she was terrified to go to work, and often went home in tears.
"What was he going to say to me if I wore a dress?” Montgomery recalls thinking on her morning commute. “What was he going to say to me if I saw him in the hallway? Was he going to touch me again? He made me feel really uncomfortable."
"That's not something anyone should have to experience at work,” Montgomery’s attorney, Andrew Hillier said. “It's just not."
In hindsight, Montgomery’s email was also hauntingly prophetic. She explicitly expressed concerns about Herrera’s interest and alone time with young, female students. The district never responded.
“There's no sign of any sort of internal investigation at all,” Hillier said, and claims the district never interviewed his client, Herrera, coworkers or students.
"Why not? What more did they need to say, ‘Hey this is something we need to look into?’” he said.
The lawyer for the underage student believes Herrera may have abused others.
"Predators don't generally have just one victim,” Pride said. “We think there are other girls out there, other students who were sexually abused by Mr. Herrera who are not willing to come forward at this time. I think some of them probably think that he loves them, or they love him. They’ve been groomed, he has brainwashed them."
Pride is also calling on District Attorney Summer Stephan to open a criminal investigation into school administrators for failing to report internal complaints about Herrera’s behavior with students to CPS or the police.
Herrera is now serving a 10-year prison sentence and a lifetime on the sex offender registry.
In response to a request for an interview, a district spokesperson told NBC 7, “the district does not comment on pending litigation.”