SAN MATEO — Sexual harassment of teachers by students is rampant at Serra High, a teacher claims in a lawsuit filed Thursday against the prestigious all-boys Catholic school, describing a sordid “boys will be boys” atmosphere where kids competed to get up-skirt videos of their female instructors.
Kimberly Bohnert claims that administrators failed to protect her over two years of humiliation that also involved sexually explicit tweets, graffiti and an online image reproduced by a number of athletes at the school. The storied institution, celebrating its 70th anniversary, is best known as the alma mater of such sports stars as Barry Bonds, Tom Brady and Lynn Swann.
“It’s a very athletic school and sometimes sports are put forward more than moral development,” said Bohnert, 38, during an interview in her attorney’s office. Bohnert is also suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Francisco, which oversees the school, and its affiliates for damages.
Ultimately action was taken: Six students, all minors, were expelled and six were suspended. And San Mateo police referred the six juveniles “most culpable for producing and distributing the images” to the San Mateo County Juvenile Probation Department, police Sgt. David Norton said. The probation chief could not comment specifically on the boys’ punishments, but said generally, first-time offenders are referred to diversion programs.
The school — with 840 students and 64 teachers, 21 of those women — released a two-page statement addressing the allegations.
“Last year’s incident was tragic, and the disrespect shown by certain former students did not reflect what we teach and model here at Serra High School,” said school President Lars Lund. “We felt a deep level of compassion for the teacher. We immediately contacted the San Mateo Police Department and fully cooperated with them during our mutual investigations.”
Lund said the school held a student assembly outlining the legal ramifications of inappropriate texting and Internet activity and partnered with San Mateo police to continue training in online behaviors.
Bohnert said the efforts were not enough and the harassment from football, baseball, basketball and lacrosse players forced her to go on leave because she was concerned for her safety.
“I’m hoping for the administration to recognize the seriousness of the issue and I’m hoping the school makes some real change to make Serra a better place and to allow these boys to be in a culture that respects one another,” Bohnert said. Her lawsuit also seeks back pay and unspecified general and punitive damages.
Bohnert, who grew up in parochial schools, started teaching at Serra High in the 2006-07 school year. During her second year there, a female English teacher had her buttocks photographed and shared by students, Bohnert said. The following year a student was caught in the act of taking an up-skirt photo of a female Spanish teacher, she said.
“It was very hush-hush,” Bohnert said. “I was really shocked. I guess I could say I was naive on some level. I trusted the kids.”
In February 2012, school staff found sexually explicit and violent graffiti on the boy’s bathroom wall targeting Bohnert, according to the lawsuit. The administration told her they were investigating, but she said she never heard more about it.
“I was hoping the students would be held accountable,” Bohnert said. “To not get any resolution spoke volumes about how the kids could get away with anything.”
Then, in November 2012, sexually explicit tweets targeting Bohnert were found, but again administrators did nothing, Bohnert said.
On May 17, 2013, Principal Barry Thornton called Bohnert into his office and shared a rumor that a student secretly filmed her under her dress while she was teaching. Appalled, she said she left the office, approached three students and asked them about the “rumor.” The students confirmed the existence of the video and one of them described it to her in detail.
“One kid was describing my private parts in the hallway,” she said. She went to her car and cried — “It was humiliating. I was mortified.”
She said the school only contacted police because she told them she was headed to the station. She said most of the photos were deleted before police could see them, harming the police probe. Norton, however, said school staff “fully cooperated” with the investigation, and in a statement Serra Principal Barry Thornton said staff acted quickly to aid the investigation and turned over the expelled and suspended students’ cell phones to police.
Bohnert went on leave May 18, 2013, the same day administrators sent the first of a few letters home to parents alerting them of the expulsions. Bohnert said the letters “minimized” the experiences of the female teachers. “I don’t feel they were forthcoming on how widespread it was,” she said.
One student who took up-skirt photos, with the help of classmates who would distract the teachers, told police that it was a long-standing practice on campus.
San Mateo police officer Brian Curley wrote in a 2013 police report, obtained by this newspaper, that the student, a junior at the time, said he was told about it when he was a freshman in 2011. ” …(The juvenile) said there is major bragging rights to anyone who can obtain the photo of a teacher. He said that person instantly becomes very popular and has an infamous status,” Curley wrote.
“Even though they are a private all-boys school, even though they are run by the Archdiocese of San Francisco, they are like any other employer and have an obligation to protect their employees from sexual harassment,” said Deborah Kochan, an attorney representing Bohnert. “Once it happens they have a legal obligation to investigate to understand the full scope and then to fix it.”
In the statement from the school, Principal Thornton called the school community’s response to the embarrassing incidents “admirable.”
“We have not shied away from the challenges that our community faced last year,” he said. “Rather, we reflected on those challenges during several student educational assemblies as an opportunity to deepen our commitment to our core educational mission — that of creating men of faith, wisdom, service, community and leadership.”