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The Teacher. The Basketball Coach. The Dead Rat in the Mail.
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=51260"><span class="small">Sarah Fuss Kessler, Medium</span></a>   
Sunday, 28 July 2019 14:04

Kessler writes: "Over the years, Delgado had heard from an increasing number of students that administrators essentially ignored the sexual misconduct and bullying complaints they submitted against their peers. This weighed on her as she mulled the ramifications of filing her own report against a prominent staff member."

Merced, California. (photo: Laila Bahman/Medium)
Merced, California. (photo: Laila Bahman/Medium)


The Teacher. The Basketball Coach. The Dead Rat in the Mail.

By Sarah Fuss Kessler, Medium

28 July 19


Inside the #MeToo crisis—and coverup—sparked at Golden Valley High

. “All This and a Brain, Too”

Annie Delgado was never big on sports-related social gatherings. The only reason the Golden Valley High School teacher had come to the Athletic Hall of Fame dinner for a rival high school was to see her father-in-law inducted for his volunteer support of local teams.

As she crossed the rec building at the county fairgrounds to order her husband a drink, Delgado weaved through tables set with roses and cloth napkins in the school’s colors, Halloween orange and black. The 600 attendees in the crowd that night — March 25, 2017 — were mostly white, mostly affluent residents of Merced, California, a Central Valley farming town located an hour northwest of Fresno.

The $1,000 sponsorship tables up front had been claimed by the Razzari family’s Ford dealership, Elks Lodge 1240, and the other usual suspects. The new Miss Merced County and Miss Merced County’s Outstanding Teen were there, wearing twin white sashes and tiaras. A handful of coaches from the six core campuses of the Merced Union High School District (MUHSD) were also in attendance, still as popular as they’d been as teenagers racking up touchdowns and buzzer beaters.

Delgado had grown up in Merced, back when hers seemed to be the only Hispanic family living north of Highway 99, a boundary that cleaves the town into two economically, ethnically, and often politically disparate parts. After graduating from high school in 1990, Delgado moved to Washington, D.C., where she went to Trinity Washington College (now University) and Catholic University’s law school. She briefly practiced as a civil rights attorney but found she lacked passion for the work. When she moved back to her hometown, she fell in love with teaching the children of Merced, many of them first-generation Americans from the south side, many of whose parents worked on farms, in school cafeterias, or not at all.

In the two decades since, Delgado, now 44, had become one of the few educators in the U.S. who teach women’s studies at the high school level. Her former principal told me that her mix of local credibility and worldliness was a “one in a million” combination. She was exactly the sort of person he’d been seeking to create a women’s studies elective that might inspire students and help reduce the high numbers of pregnancies and abusive relationships on his campus. In 2014, Delgado was named teacher of the year in the school district and the county. Two years later, she was honored at the White House as a “champion of change” for the summer program she developed to prevent the area’s highest-risk youth from dropping out of school.

As Delgado approached the bar at the Hall of Fame dinner, she came across Keith Hunter, another Golden Valley teacher and the school’s celebrated basketball coach. Fifty-one years-old, six-foot-plus, with a pale bald head, Hunter was the life of hundreds of postgame parties and, like Delgado, a negotiator for the local teachers union. The two chatted about their recent bargaining session with the school district, but the conversation soon took an unexpected turn. According to Delgado, the coach began slowly shaking his head as if in disbelief and said she looked “really hot.” He also told her, “I think about you and your incredibly long legs and your ass.” Then, she says, he positioned his hands a few inches from her breasts, made a tapping motion above her head, and marveled, “All this and a brain, too — who wouldn’t want to do you?” Finally, Hunter smacked his broad palm against her backside.

Delgado felt overcome by a torrent of shock, humiliation, and sadness, and her face must have shown it. Right then, Hunter, a married man, seemed to awaken to what he’d just done. Delgado recalls that he threw his hand out and, as if to desexualize the act, delivered an “Attaboy!” butt slap to an older man standing nearby, who whipped around and shot the two a startled glare. Delgado could only shrug, unable to summon any words until she got back to her table and recounted the ordeal to her husband.

A few days later, according to Delgado, Hunter phoned to ask that she come by his classroom. He had never made such a request before, so she assumed he wanted to apologize. Instead he spoke about the union as if everything were normal. She didn’t trust him and was gripped by the impulse to escape. In their negotiating unit, Hunter sometimes called Delgado “the brains.” But as she hurried out of his classroom that day, she says she felt “irrelevant to him, nothing more than a body, less than that.”

***

(II) Indecision

Annie Delgado has an athletic frame and a slender, often smiling face defined by its absence of angles. She wears a Fitbit and sunglasses that are usually pushed to the top of her head, holding her long hair back in a way that makes it look like she’s facing a stiff wind. She appears perpetually in motion and usually is. She wakes up at 4:30 a.m., hits the gym, arrives at Golden Valley to teach five periods of economics and “The Role of Women in Society and U.S. History,” leads a final women’s studies class at one of the district’s alternative education campuses, and, after school, meets with at-risk kids from her summer program.

Delgado had never heard of anyone in Merced filing a sexual harassment complaint, and she didn’t plan to file one, either. She says complaining was viewed as weak and aligned with negative stereotypes of typical females that pervaded her sports-obsessed workplace. To challenge Hunter, the coaching hero with two decades of wins to his credit, seemed like professional suicide. And with administrators demonstrating less support for her women’s studies course in recent years, she figured the best way to serve students was to, as she puts it, “buck up” and “stay under the radar.”

But Delgado’s husband, Mike Mondo, a middle-school math teacher and Golden Valley’s assistant football coach, wouldn’t let the episode go. A week after the Hall of Fame dinner, at another sports fundraiser — one that Delgado refused to attend — he confronted Hunter. “I was calm, a lot calmer than I would’ve been the week before,” Mondo says. “I felt like, since I’d known Keith 30 years, I had to let him know that he’d crossed a line.”

Hunter looked “dumbfounded” at first, according to Mondo. Then he invited Mondo to punch him as a way to even the score.

“I was floored,” Mondo says. “I told him that wasn’t why I was there.” Mondo also says that Hunter offered his own wife’s backside to grab as a way to “reciprocate.”

By email, Hunter told me he didn’t remember that part of the interaction, though he later acknowledged it to the local paper and said he was joking. In the email, Hunter recalled apologizing and asking what he could do to make it right. He said Mondo told him, “Annie is hurt, and you need to speak with her.”

The following Monday, Delgado says, Hunter appeared in the red doorway of her classroom to say he didn’t remember what happened at the Hall of Fame event because he’d been drunk. He mumbled an apology.

It wasn’t the open-eyed repentance that might have turned the situation around for Delgado. Instead, she says, “I just shut down and wanted him to go.”

Over the years, Delgado had heard from an increasing number of students that administrators essentially ignored the sexual misconduct and bullying complaints they submitted against their peers. This weighed on her as she mulled the ramifications of filing her own report against a prominent staff member. She also knew her principal was friendly with Hunter and that her complaint would go through Ralph Calderon, MUHSD’s deputy superintendent of human resources, who seemed at union bargaining sessions to be a fan of the coach.

Then again, she thought, how could she counsel students — or her daughter — to stand up to harassers if she didn’t do it herself?

Trapped between conflicting instincts, Delgado slid into a six-month depression. “She’d come home, lay in bed, play games on the computer or on her phone,” Mondo says. “Almost like a hermit.” Spring drifted into summer, then summer into fall. That October, the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and #MeToo went from a hashtag to a rallying cry to a full-fledged movement. Even so, Delgado felt it had little to do with her experience in Merced, 270 miles from Hollywood.

***

Merced County’s 2,000 square miles are home to milk farms, almond orchards, 272,000 inhabitants, and some noteworthy statistics. Unemployment is double the California average, and over the past 10 years, the murder rate has often been first or second highest in the state. The town of Merced’s Main Street is anchored by a brick stretch of storefronts bombed out by Amazon and the last recession, and it routinely appears on lists of the worst places to live in the U.S. even as its affordability and agricultural opportunities keep the population growing five times faster than the national average. While the U.S. is projected to become minority white by 2045, Merced County passed that mark about 20 years ago. Today, 8 out of 10 MUHSD students are people of color, and the percentage who are socioeconomically disadvantaged is almost as high. The school district’s administrators and teachers, meanwhile, are majority white.

Situated in the middle of a swing county, electoral politics in the town of Merced — population 87,000 — tend to be swayed not just by party affiliation but by long-standing alliances that coalesce around agriculture and high school sports. People vote for who they know, and they protect who they know. As a result, change comes slowly.

Seven months after the episode with Hunter, Delgado was still experiencing waves of anxiety whenever she had to see him at faculty meetings and union events. She admonished herself: This is what you signed up for when you decided to keep your mouth shut.

Mondo saw the toll the situation was taking on his wife and on the couple’s two children. At his urging, Delgado finally delivered a letter to her principal and mentor, Kevin Swartwood, on Oct. 27, 2017, asking for help establishing a workplace separation between her and Hunter. Swartwood emailed back a few days later promising to help them “co-exist.” But shortly after, Delgado says, Hunter interrupted her fourth period class to ask if she would tutor one of his players. Alarmed, she sent the principal another note.

By email, Hunter told me that he was not informed of Delgado’s request until several days after his visit to her classroom. Their principal did not respond to my questions.

Delgado’s second communication to Swartwood landed her exactly where she’d never wanted to be: at a long conference-room table with a knot of MUHSD staff led by Calderon, the deputy superintendent.

“Do you understand how serious this is?” Delgado recalls Calderon asking. A large man with wispy gray hair, Calderon held up a copy of the district policies in front of her. To Delgado, it was the harassment itself, not the reporting of it, that was serious. When she voiced her intention to move forward, she says, Calderon looked “annoyed.”

He told her he would call in an independent investigator to handle the matter. According to a representative from the teachers’ union who was in the room, Calderon “practically shoved” a copy of MUHSD’s sexual harassment policy and employee rights at Delgado.

During the six-week investigation that followed, Delgado says she did not hear from Calderon again. With no written guidelines about what to expect, advance notice of her interviews with the MUHSD attorney, or updates about the duration of the process, she says she felt continuously unsteady. Throughout the inquiry, Hunter remained on campus. This is not typical for an educational setting. According to Troy Flint, the spokesperson for the California School Boards Association (CSBA), “it is commonplace for those who are subjects of battery allegations to be placed on leave while the matter is under investigation.” At each faculty meeting, Delgado fought the feeling that she was the one who had done something wrong. “Reporting is a humiliating and isolating experience,” she says. “There was never any respect or empathy afforded to me.”

In a letter dated Jan. 5, 2018, Calderon informed Delgado that the school district had substantiated her claims. “Hunter admitted that he was likely intoxicated,” the determination read, and “combined with his own admission that he engaged in other similar, highly inappropriate behavior (slapping you on the buttocks), the District found it more likely than not that Mr. Hunter also engaged in the additional inappropriate behaviors and made the comments you alleged.”

This kind of harassment involving battery or assault is typically “grounds for dismissal,” according to CSBA spokesperson Flint. But the consequences weren’t that severe for Hunter. Calderon issued a letter of reprimand for the coach’s file and directed him to reread MUHSD’s sexual harassment policy. And while Calderon wrote to Delgado that the district was “taking proactive steps to minimize your interactions with Mr. Hunter,” he did not say what those were.

Delgado was devastated. A letter of reprimand? The soft punishment seemed to her an extension of the gender and race discrimination she saw in the deprioritization of her female students’ complaints or in the way boys’ coaches were picked for promotions and perks. Of the nine district principals, eight were men, eight were white, and at least six had coached boys’ teams.

At a follow-up meeting scheduled by Calderon, Delgado expected to learn more about the steps mentioned in his letter and to share suggestions for improving MUHSD’s complaint procedure — for example, periodic HR check-ins with the complainant and an email after filing that would confirm rights, protocols, and a proposed investigation timeline. But according to notes taken by the union representative who joined them, Calderon tried, “in a brusque tone of voice,” to prevent the teacher from reading her list until a later date. The rep wrote that Delgado insisted, though she “was clearly in distress” and “crying throughout her reading.” Delgado says that Calderon responded by disagreeing with her points in a tone that was “derisive, abrasive, and mocking.”

Afterward, Delgado sent an email to Superintendent Alan Peterson and the five members of the MUHSD board, all men, informing them of her belief that Calderon’s treatment of her amounted to retaliation. She also shared her procedural suggestions. No one responded, she says.

A statement emailed to me by MUHSD spokesperson Sheryl Garman on behalf of Calderon and Peterson refuted the way Delgado and the union representative characterized the two HR meetings. “The Board determined Ms. Delgado’s complaint was handled appropriately and in compliance with District policy and laws prohibiting sexual harassment,” read a portion of the eight-paragraph statement, which I received after sending questions about multiple topics to four administrators. MUHSD declined to match my questions to the points in the statement, but I have included their responses in this article as thoroughly and accurately as possible.

***

(III) Going Public

A week after Delgado’s meeting with Calderon, Golden Valley honored Hunter for his 400th coaching win with a pregame ceremony that included Merced’s mayor, a state assemblyman, and a congregation of former players. The recognition may have befit the accomplishment, but for Delgado, the timing was intolerable.

“I kept thinking about the next person who was going to sit in that chair in the human resources office,” Delgado says. She decided she would share her story more widely. In an email to her union president, Michael Boykin, she wrote, “Keith’s conduct was a symptom and I’m seeking to get to the root.” Boykin had been following Delgado’s complaint and promised to try to connect her with women who might be willing to speak alongside her at a school board meeting, where the district officials would have no choice but to listen.

In addition, Delgado confided in several close friends. One had connections in the police department and suggested she escalate her complaint against Hunter by reporting his misconduct to law-enforcement officers. So Delgado did. She also reached out to philanthropic organizations for a pro bono attorney.

When a group from the teacher’s union approached Delgado in March 2018 about a leadership role in her unit, she felt it necessary to disclose her plan to expose the district’s handling of her sexual harassment complaint. It’s about time, thought Miguel Hernández, Delgado’s friend and fellow negotiator. After 28 years teaching in the district, he believed the sexism, cronyism, and other abuses of power had been getting worse. He pledged his support.

MUHSD was the fourth-largest employer in town, and fear of retaliation by its powerful all-male leadership was widespread. By the middle of the month, Delgado had found just one female colleague who might be willing to share her story publicly — and the woman wasn’t sure she could go through with it, even though she had tenure.

For reinforcement, Delgado reached out to Kamala Lopez, a feminist activist and actress with whom she’d previously communicated about her women’s studies curriculum. Lopez, in turn, connected Delgado with Caroline Heldman, a politics professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a high-profile #MeToo coordinator. Heldman had accompanied Bill Cosby’s victims to the courthouse in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and was among the women at Fox News, where she had worked as a pundit, to make harassment allegations against Bill O’Reilly and Eric Bolling. Heldman decided she wanted to come to Merced to be in the audience at the board meeting in May, when Delgado had determined she would speak.

“People who experience sexual harassment and assault in more suburban or rural areas often feel isolated,” Heldman says. “I didn’t want Annie to have to stand alone.”

Friends had suggested that Delgado submit an inquiry to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Fresno, which held the authority to investigate the district’s policies and grant her the option to sue, a prerequisite for a civil complaint. She had hoped to eventually hear from the superintendent or school board about addressing the issues she had raised in her email to them, but by mid-April she detected no sign of change from MUHSD and made an appointment to tell her story to officials in Fresno.

At around the same time, on the south side of town, student members of Girls and Womyn of Color (GWoC), a new community empowerment group, were doing what a lot of young women were doing in the spring of 2018: sharing their #MeToo experiences with each other. The group’s program coordinator, Claudia Gonzalez, heard about Delgado’s plan and told the other GWoC girls, some of whom were Delgado’s students. They wanted to help, Gonzalez says, though they weren’t sure how.

Despite the flurry of emails, calls, and expert assistance, Delgado’s plan had yet to solidify in the weeks preceding the May board meeting. Staff members, including Miguel Hernández, were prepared to speak about Calderon’s lack of professionalism and his bullying, but a week before the meeting, a few women who had promised to contribute anonymous statements about sexism and harassment were still hesitant. Delgado steeled herself for the possibility that she might be the only female victim to stand up before the nine male MUHSD board members and superintendents. “It was one of the times,” she told me, “when I really felt alone in this.”

***

(IV) #MErcedTOO

On the afternoon of May 9, the institutional drabness of the Golden Valley library was brightened by an array of yellow, green, and violet T-shirts and signs that said “#MErced TOO” and “Stand With Annie.” Over a dozen people — from the union, MUHSD’s staff and student body, and the greater community — showed up to tell their stories or read statements on behalf of someone else, and at least three times as many turned out to offer support. Delgado was astonished.

Sitting at the front of the room were the four leaders of the district office, including Superintendent Peterson and his deputy, Calderon, as well as the five school board members. Board President Dave Honey presided over them.

Before Honey became the board’s longest-serving and most powerful member, he had been the athletic director at Atwater High School, where in 2013 the football facility was rechristened Dave Honey Stadium. When key seats opened in the district office two years later, Honey helped place Atwater’s principal, Peterson, in the district’s top job. For the role of deputy superintendent, they brought in Calderon, who was also tied to Atwater — as an alumnus, former baseball player, and one-time associate principal. In the assessment of Tammie Calzadillas, who was an assistant superintendent under the previous administration and the only woman serving at a senior level after the transition, the new cabinet was “inexperienced.” She also told me that under Peterson, she “did not feel valued as a professional woman with a doctorate” and left for another school district soon after. (Honey and Peterson declined to respond directly to questions about Calzadillas’ comments, but the MUHSD statement said the district is “very supportive of women in leadership positions at the site and District levels.”)

After the pledge of allegiance, roll call, and two pages of agenda items, Honey opened the 20-minute public comment period. One of the first speakers summoned to the podium was Adam Lincoln Lane, a victim’s advocate at the local Valley Crisis Center. Lane explained that he had been asked to share the effects of sexual harassment and assault, which he relayed as “humiliation, anxiety … increase in absenteeism, clinical depression, suicidal thoughts as well as completion of suicide.” He informed the board that MUHSD students had sought services at his center and that “some have been adamant on their refusal to report certain behaviors that have taken place on campus based on what they have seen other victims that speak out go through.”

The next presenter, Justin Kenny, secretary of the teacher’s union, was even more pointed: “Knowing something bad is happening and not doing something about it is a dangerous way to run a school district.” Speaking forcefully, Kenny did not use Calderon’s name but said that MUHSD had “breached” its duty to protect employees when it had placed the current deputy superintendent in charge of HR with “full knowledge of the extensive number of grievances against [him].”

When Delgado’s turn came, she tucked her hair behind one ear and said, in a shaky voice, “My daughter didn’t want me to speak tonight because she’s afraid I’m going to lose my job.” But this slightly off-balance opening soon grew to a fiery oration in which she announced — for the first time in a public forum — that an investigation by the school district had confirmed that an unnamed “male colleague did in fact engage in highly inappropriate behaviors as it related to the touching of my body.” Because that matter was no longer in question, she said she would focus on the district’s subsequent handling of her claim. Like Kenny, she did not refer to Calderon by name but described how he had “mocked and belittled” her recommendations, and she condemned the district for treating victims like perpetrators. She argued that the deputy superintendent lacked the temperament and advanced degrees that should be prerequisites for the high-level position he held. How can the office of human resources, she asked, “hold individuals accountable for standards that they themselves cannot abide by?”

As Delgado called for changes to the sexual harassment policies and their implementation, she told the men before her, “You are at a critical juncture. On one hand, you can look the other way and continue to be complicit and overlook the cracks plaguing our district. On the other hand, you can recognize that the system is broken and begin taking steps to proactively reshape this institution and the direction it is headed.” She exhorted them to remove the deputy superintendent and finished to an eruption of applause.

Then came the students. The young women of GWoC read statements on behalf of themselves and their friends. One young woman, a Golden Valley senior who we will call Ana, had written about the schoolmate who she alleged had raped her two years before and had gone on to intimidate her on campus. Her statement said that the school had never been clear about how to report that kind of situation or what the consequences would be.

The board members were silent, but as each new student stepped to the microphone, the men seemed to brace themselves further. Another Golden Valley senior we will call Sofía said she’d been sexually assaulted by a peer at school. The students’ advocate, Claudia Gonzalez, told me that the school’s resource officer urged the young woman, during her effort to report, to go home and think about whether she really wanted to file paperwork. A third student asked the board for a clear reporting protocol, a designated person to report to, and a student representative on the board. “We’re often bounced around from classroom to teacher to the campus resource officer to administration to the school psychologist,” she read. “The lack of protocol has made some people feel like giving up out of frustration and lack of support.”

As the girls spoke, Delgado received a text from a friend in the audience saying that two associate principals were covertly taking the students’ photographs. Miguel Hernández heard from Boykin, the union president, that some late arrivals were turned away. (Board member John Medearis corroborated this with me and said that Peterson declined to move the meeting to a more spacious venue.)

Caroline Heldman and several students from Occidental had arrived from Los Angeles in time to find seats near the front. “Good evening, gentlemen,” Heldman said as she stepped to the microphone before dropping the sarcasm and going on to warn the district that they must swiftly conform to federal and state law. Others were prepared to speak, including Delgado’s husband, but the board announced that the 20-minute period had expired and would not be extended.

When the four-and-a-half hour meeting finally came to an end, the men at the front of the room offered brief responses to what they’d heard. There were legal constraints on what they could say, Honey and his colleagues later told me, but Medearis did announce that a student board member would be considered at next month’s meeting and that the dramatic testimonies demanded discussion by the board as soon as possible. His colleague Greg Opinski made a point to thank the speakers for sharing their stories.

As the final remarks drew to a close, Honey struck another note. Turning to Calderon and the other district officers, he thanked them for withstanding the barrage of grievances and said, “You sure got your stripes today.”

***

(V) The Survivors

The next day, Joslyn Campos was on the road when her phone buzzed. The message contained a link to a video, and she pulled over to watch it. “I just started bawling,” she told me.

The video, posted by the Merced Sun-Star, showed Delgado’s stirring speech to the board along with a story headlined “‘The System Is Broken.’ Decorated Teacher Says Merced Union Fails to Protect Students.” Before noon, Campos, a recent graduate of MUHSD’s Buhach Colony High School, sent an email to Delgado titled “My Story.”

Campos shared that story with me in a cafe near her community college. Composed, with alert brown eyes, she told me that her #MeToo ordeal began in the spring of 2016, when a good friend and schoolmate reported to Buhach Colony administrators that one of their “campus liaisons” — MUHSD’s term for unarmed guards who enforce school rules — had grabbed and sexually harassed her. As a student helper in the disciplinary office at that time, Campos told me she had been the one to file notes related to her friend’s complaint. Campos also said that because the guard — a man in his thirties who she does not wish to identify — was permitted to continue working at Buhach, another staff member suggested that Campos accompany her friend between classes to deter further attacks. This put Campos on the man’s radar, she said, and in no time, the guard started appearing outside her classes as they let out and calling her by name, even though the two had never met.

Summer break seemed to offer a respite. Campos, then 17, was active with her campus’s Future Farmers of America club and spent the beginning of June showing her lamb at the Merced County Fair. On June 10, she led a tour of the grounds for Buhach’s special education students, and one of the chaperones turned out to be the security guard. Campos told me she tried to be polite as he introduced her to his younger sister and his wife. “I was just trying to give him the benefit of the doubt,” she says.

During lunch, a student with autism asked to return to the petting zoo, and Campos volunteered to take him. She says she was standing with the boy on the scattered hay when she felt a man behind her. “I could feel his chest against my back,” she says, “and his hands are completely down my shirt and in my bra, grabbing.” She says she turned to find the familiar thick-browed face of the Buhach security guard.

“You just freeze,” she says. “You don’t know how to handle it.”

Four days later, at the MUHSD offices, Campos said Calderon met with her, her father, and her mother, who worked for the district and was therefore under Calderon’s purview. Everyone seemed to want to settle the issue swiftly and internally. “He said he believed me one hundred percent,” Campos told me. “He was so sincere.”

Calderon arranged to go over his findings the next day with Campos’s mother alone. According to Campos, Calderon explained that the guard had said he did not know who Campos was, denied the attack, and provided an alibi: that he was with his wife, who worked with the special education students. Meanwhile, Campos told me, her only potential witness was the boy she was with at the time of the alleged assault, who had limited verbal skills. According to Campos, Calderon said that all he could do was ask the guard to stay away from her, which he said he had done.

Two months later, on the first day of her senior year, Campos says she was working alone in the discipline office when the guard walked in and stared her down. The next day, she spotted his reflection in the office window; he was standing behind her. She told me he bolted at the approaching jingle of a staff member’s keys but not before asking her, “How does it feel to lose?”

In the course of my reporting, I was able to connect with the guard. He told me via Facebook Messenger that the allegations against him had been disproven and that his wife and the school group were with him at the fair “every minute I was there.” I asked several follow-up questions, which he did not answer. One of those questions was about a five-year restraining order, valid until 2011 and issued on behalf of his ex-wife. She alleged, according to the accompanying police report, that he choked her twice during an argument, and he confessed to grabbing her by the neck. I also let the guard know that I had obtained a series of photographs from the county fair event that showed him walking alone, away from his wife and the group, during the timeframe when Campos alleges the offense took place. He did not respond.

Campos told me that the guard, a former Atwater High School coach, continued harassing her — stalking her through campus, blocking passageways, and taunting her with feigned pleasantries. Buhach administrators told Campos they would check hallway video cameras for evidence of the guard’s harassment, she says, but they never followed up. Instead of protecting her, Campos says, Calderon approached her and warned that if she pursued the issue, she would lose friends on the girls’ sports team that the guard coached. Then, Campos says, Calderon came to the crux of the matter: “He said if I was to talk about the subject in such a small town, where everyone’s known everyone since high school, it would cause more issues for me and possibly my family.”

Calderon did not directly respond to my questions. However, MUHSD said that the district follows the investigation process outlined in its policies “in regard to all complaints it receives.” It denied that Calderon had discouraged any complaints and also asserted that the district could “not comment publicly on investigations/interactions involving students because of federal and state privacy laws.”

For reasons MUHSD declined to explain, the guard was moved to its adult campus in September 2016, three months after Campos’s initial complaint.

***

The story about the Buhach guard was one of about a dozen that landed in Delgado’s inbox that week. “I never stopped to think that sharing my story would trigger what it did,” Delgado says. Some of the women had never disclosed their stories to anyone. Two spoke to me on condition of anonymity because they feared future damage to their careers.

One is a former cafeteria employee from Atwater High School who alleges that a male service worker would compare the breasts of the cafeteria staff, show them photos of nude women, and badger her when she asked him to stop. She says that over a period of seven years, beginning in 2008, she repeatedly complained about him to school administrators, including her former principal, Alan Peterson. When she complained again during the first week of November 2015, the worker retaliated, she says, by accusing her of stealing food. On Nov. 14, she was placed on leave and ultimately resigned after a protracted investigation that she believed involved a number of irregularities, including the alleged failings of a union representative who she says did not effectively defend her because he was “afraid of Calderon.” Though she said she consulted with an attorney about a lawsuit, she could not afford the $7,000 retainer.

MUHSD, citing employee privacy, declined to comment on the cafeteria worker’s allegations but said in its statement that the district’s administrative team had never engaged in “retaliatory conduct in response to the filing of a complaint.”

Another woman to confide in Delgado was a MUHSD maintenance employee of almost two decades who told me that for years she had been subjected to sexual harassment by the former principal of Golden Valley — a man who had once coached and taught at Atwater and recently had scored a spot in Peterson’s district office cabinet: Assistant Superintendent Constantino Aguilar.

By phone, the female employee said that, as principal, Aguilar had commented about her chest multiple times and had sat ogling her from the seats of the school theater while she painted the floor. When she summoned the strength to stand up to him, saying that his wife would probably not appreciate his comments, the overt sexual harassment ended. However, she said that once Aguilar transferred to the district office, another kind of harassment commenced. “He was all over my ass, constantly nitpicking,” she said, adding that he required her to be always on call and sometimes scheduled her to be in three places at once. The woman’s voice, which had been animated throughout much of our 90-minute conversation, became pensive and slow. “I thought, ‘I just have to accept that this is how men are going to treat me,’” she said, before a long pause. She was crying. “That’s the saddest part — don’t you think?”

Aguilar declined to comment on the allegations directly and referred questions to the MUHSD public affairs office. The district also did not comment on this specific case.

***

(VI) Backlash

At 9 a.m. on May 11, 2018, two days after the heated board meeting, GWoC organizer Claudia Gonzalez woke up to panicked texts from some of her student members. She told me that five young women at Golden Valley who had been covertly photographed were now being called into an associate principal’s office, allegedly denied an advocate, and questioned alone. Had Delgado “incited” them to speak? Would they talk to MUHSD’s attorney? What other students had similar grievances?

Seeing their friends pulled out of class, students began to whisper, and as a result, Gonzalez told me her group heard from about 25 new students with complaints or concerns. She wanted to come to campus to speak with them, but she said tensions were so heightened that students were worried their graduation privileges could be revoked if they were seen with her. In the meantime, two male teachers from the same campus were placed on leave pending investigations into groping and harassment complaints by two female students.

While some colleagues stopped by Delgado’s room that week with gifts of encouragement — a plant and two Wonder Woman bracelets — she says others kept their distance, including her principal and friend, Kevin Swartwood. Delgado’s union representative told me that a male teacher asked her what the big deal was, given that Hunter had been drunk at the event and had already apologized. On the golf course, friends of Mike Mondo’s told him that they were hearing similar chatter.

On May 17, the school board held a special session to meet with their attorneys to discuss the sexual harassment allegations that had been raised. The board gave the public just 24 hours’ notice, but three women presented comments on the topic. Marcia Bettencourt, a 22-year veteran teacher in the district, spoke on the prevalence of student-on-student sexual harassment. According to the Merced Sun-Star, a second teacher shared a colleague’s account of receiving an unwanted kiss from a male instructor. The article read, “The teacher said Calderon shrugged the complaint off when he was notified and said something to the effect of ‘that’s what the culture is’ [on your campus].”

The third speaker was Kathryn Forbes, a professor of women’s studies from Cal State Fresno and an expert on Title IX, the 1972 law that requires federally funded schools to institute varying protective measures against gender discrimination, exclusion, and harassment. Because the implementation of Title IX in secondary schools has not been a focus of the Department of Education until recently, Forbes was not surprised to find compliance problems during a review of MUHSD’s policies and online materials. A few flags she raised to me: no information on campus websites about disciplinary standards, conduct expectations, and Title IX itself; no clear description of the special rights afforded assault complainants; and no general anti-discrimination policy — an omission Forbes described as “fairly stunning.”

***

That same week, Delgado heard back from an attorney she’d been connected with through one of the nonprofits she’d reached out to earlier in the year. Her case would be represented by Jackie Len and paid for by the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which has received major donations from celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon to help women — especially those of color or modest means — as they battle sexual harassment and retaliation in their workplaces.

Len was eight months pregnant when I met her at a cafe in West Hollywood. (By day, she works at Endeavor, the parent company to two of the world’s most prestigious talent and sports agencies.) “Annie’s case is not this big dramatic thing; there’s nobody famous involved,” she said. “But this is what attorneys are now talking about. This #MeToo thing is about everything: What are the new standards? What’s acceptable? And in Annie’s case, what’s acceptable at school with teachers?”

One example of a standard that was not acceptable to Len was MUHSD’s “outdated” sexual harassment disciplinary guidelines, in which the suggested response to a teacher who touched a student “with sexual intent” was the same kind of letter Hunter got. “If I knew a teacher took actions with sexual intent towards my child, and I was told they would receive a letter to reread district policies, I really don’t know what I’d do,” Len told me. She said she had been trying to get this point across to MUHSD’s attorneys as part of negotiations intended to sidestep a lawsuit. Other items Len had been discussing with them included a role for Delgado in crafting new sexual harassment policies and reimbursement for her mental health care bills. “People need to know the impact that these decisions have on women,” Delgado says.

***

At 2:15 p.m. on the last day of the 2017–2018 school year, Marcia Bettencourt — the teacher who had spoken about student harassment at the special board meeting — discovered a purple folder in her campus mailbox at Livingston High School. Inside the folder, she says, was an envelope printed with the outdated letterhead of the school. And inside the envelope, she found the greasy fur, blistered skin, and shriveled eyes of a decomposed rat.

Two days earlier, on June 5, she had called Peterson, the superintendent, to raise a second concern on behalf of students. She would not publicly discuss the details of the matter and said only that it was not sexual and related to possible misconduct by another teacher. “It was a discreet concern,” Bettencourt said. “I believed that Superintendent Peterson would want to know.”

Bettencourt had been the 1988 valedictorian of the campus where she now taught, and in her desert-dry rasp, she told me by phone what happened next. The day after she called Peterson, she said, an administrator she declined to name repeatedly warned her, “You need to stop this; you are going to get yourself into a lot of trouble.” The next day, she felt ambushed when she received an administrative email addressed to both her and the teacher in question revealing that a complaint had been filed between them. Twenty minutes after that, Bettencourt said, she walked into a contentious meeting on her campus with two female members of Calderon’s HR office, who told her that a formal complaint had been set in motion. And about 30 minutes later, she found the dead rat.

Bettencourt immediately sent Peterson an email with a photograph of the carcass. He was the person who could make this right, she thought, and doing so would be simple. She told me that two cameras covered mailroom access points, and two secretaries had been on duty. Plus, of the handful of MUHSD employees who were aware of Bettencourt’s concern, she said even fewer were likely to have a stash of Livingston’s old letterhead. A day passed and then another, and still, Bettencourt told me, Peterson did not respond.

***

The June board meeting a week later drew another standing-room-only audience, mostly girls and women, including Delgado and Bettencourt, many wearing shirts and raising signs. In response to the May meetings, MUHSD unveiled a plan for updating its sexual harassment, bullying, and nondiscrimination policies, which included action items under topics such as “sensitive handling of complaints” and “clear messaging on who is responsible for investigation and follow-up.” Board member John Medearis, who was becoming known as one of two allies to the alleged victims (the other was Julio Valadez), said that the board had been unhappy after the May meeting and had directed Peterson to “immediately” revise policies and procedures. The superintendent had been diligent in quickly pulling the plan together, Medearis added. “No one blew it off or minimized it,” he said.

Caroline Heldman, in town again from Los Angeles, was not convinced. At the podium, she began by introducing the throng of cheering attendees as members of a newly formed coalition: #TimesUpMUHSD. Then she told the district, “What we’re missing is a timeline.” To address this, she announced that #TimesUpMUHSD had six demands, each carrying a deadline of September, October, or December. If the deadlines were missed, she warned, the group would trigger negative media attention and legal action.

These demands included the establishment of a centralized and clearly posted reporting process, annual sexual harassment and violence prevention training for employees and students, and the coalition’s formal involvement in policy and implementation discussions. It was the last item that had the most importance to the female students and staff in the audience, who had not yet received apologies from the district or been asked about what they would like to see fixed. Without that, the new plan looked to them like nothing more than words meant to protect the district from legal action.

As the meeting continued, two more students spoke about their mishandled sexual misconduct complaints. One of them broke down sobbing as she told her story. “I have depression because of this guy,” she said. “I’m traumatized because of this guy, and you guys couldn’t do anything?”

As the board members sat expressionless, a long-haired woman in the crowd stood up. “If it was your daughter, you’d want something done about it,” she shouted. “It’s shameful.”

“That’s what we’re intending to do by changing all this,” Board President Honey replied, adding that the issue was unknown to him until recently. Then he changed tack and said that any teacher who had been aware of wrongdoing should have reported it to child protective services. The audience groaned at Honey’s apparent attempt to pass the blame.

Fed up with the defensiveness and unresponsiveness they perceived from some of the board members, Delgado’s friend Miguel Hernández and some other attendees agreed to support a female candidate running against one of the two board members — Opinski and Honey — up for re-election that November. The woman they’d ultimately select would be Tammie Calzadillas, the former assistant superintendent who quit Peterson’s cabinet.

***

(VII) A History of Violence?

Judy Calderon Ballard is Ralph Calderon’s ex-wife. At the end of the summer of 2018, after seeing the latest in a series of newspaper articles about her former husband, Judy called Caroline Heldman to tell her a number of stories she hoped would support claims by MUHSD students and staff. The main themes were that Calderon operated with impunity and might not hold women in the highest regard.

“He told me during our divorce that I’d never ever have a peaceful day for the rest of my life,” Judy told me on a warm Central Valley afternoon as I sat with her and her husband, John Ballard, in their Atwater real estate offices. Judy is a tall woman, nearly six feet, and she speaks quickly and directly: “He continues to make pretty good on that promise.” She alleged that Calderon “stalked” her and Ballard for years. When he and Judy were dating, Ballard said, Calderon would drive past his home multiple times a week. Ballard’s roommate at the time, Marco Lynn, who corroborated the account to me by phone, was among 11 witnesses who wrote letters to the family court in 2005 about instances of Calderon circling the couple’s real estate office, running Ballard off the road, and threatening Judy with “bodily harm.”

In the letters, Judy’s friend Nancy Billings wrote that she’d seen calls from Calderon come through Judy’s cellphone “incessantly” and had overheard him on one of those calls “in a weird guttural voice saying, ‘You are making me so mad. You are going to make me do something.’” When I spoke to Billings recently, she reaffirmed her account.

Calderon did not respond to requests for comment. In his statements in the family court file, he countered with allegations of his own: that John Ballard had tailgated him, threatened him, and made harassing phone calls to him. To support one of these alleged incidents, Calderon’s neighbor wrote a note to the court saying that he had witnessed a man in a car in front of his house, yelling.

Judy and Ballard allege that Calderon’s behavior escalated the weekend of Oct. 15, 2005, while they and their kids were away. According to the Merced Sheriff’s Department report, the contents of their 5,000-square-foot house on Rainbow Lane had been broken into and “very vandalized.” Furniture was slashed, broken, or overturned. TVs and mirrors were smashed. Three cars were damaged. Bleach had been poured on the carpets as well as the couple’s mattress, which had been slashed. A sheriff’s officer found a Stanley box cutter on a shelf in front of the only photo of Judy and John that had not been destroyed.

Calderon was the only suspect named in the felony report, but the case file contains no interviews with him nor any follow-up materials. Family court documents show that Calderon passed a private lie detector test. According to the examiner’s report, Calderon denied involvement in the break-in and called other allegations by his ex and her husband “all fabricated.” The report also noted that “Ralph stated this is yet another attempt by John and Judy to defame him, take control of his children and move out of the area against the wishes of his children.”

Nothing in the sheriff’s case file indicates that Calderon was ruled out as a suspect, nor was another suspect named.

***

(VIII) Older Men

Pray for rain, read signs in the fields along Highway 99. After a parched summer, the 2018–2019 school year opened with sexual harassment training for teachers and a letter to all students detailing the updated sexual harassment policy, including a clarified complaint procedure. But for Delgado and her allies, the battle continued. The two male Golden Valley teachers, who had disappeared in May after being accused of groping female students, quietly returned to class, disciplinary letters tucked away in their files. And because a number of the coalition’s deadlines for reform had already been missed, the activists were rolling out the promised consequences: A ShameOnMUHSD.com website had gone live, and the Merced Sun-Star reported that Coach Keith Hunter had been Delgado’s harasser the year before.

According to a GWoC senior at Golden Valley, some basketball players were defending Hunter, and debates broke out on Snapchat. She also saw a player stand outside Delgado’s classroom and announce that since the women’s studies teacher had complained about his coach, he was going to be “real disrespectful.”

Hunter, who remained a teacher and coach at Golden Valley, responded in a statement to the Sun-Star: “I was provided specific directives and admonitions from the district … . I have followed these directives since the letter was presented to me.”

The day the story about Hunter came out, Delgado told me, she found a copy of the paper in her campus mailbox. She was feeling increasingly isolated and ground down. By the end of September 2018, she had received word that the one-year statute of limitations on Hunter’s offense had expired during the six weeks that police had taken to prepare their report for the district attorney. She had also felt her union’s support fade over time as it avoided taking the side of one member over another. “They hid behind the issue that Keith and I are both teachers,” she said. “I needed them to say every single employee has the right to be safe. I needed them to advocate and fight in support for changes in the policies.” (Boykin, the union president, said via email that while the union was bound to represent every member, “We repeatedly met with the Superintendent to demand policies and protocols that would protect not only Ms. Delgado, but all who make charges of harassment, in a humane and respectful manner.”)

Additionally, MUHSD was refusing to give any ground in negotiations with Jackie Len, Delgado’s attorney. A rising tide of exhaustion and panic attacks had Delgado scrambling to make arrangements to leave town as soon as possible to spend a month at a mental health facility.

On Sept. 28, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination to the full Senate. Heldman had been protesting outside the hearing in the capital while other members of #TimesUpMUHSD watched the events unfold from home, reliving their own failed efforts to get authorities to take their reports of sexual abuse seriously.

Joslyn Campos wasn’t responding to my calls and texts around this time, so it came as a surprise when, at the October 2018 school board meeting, a reading of a statement on behalf of a former student began in a familiar way: “Hello board members and district office staff — I was 17 and at the county fair when a staff member came up behind me…”

The writing was clear, the delivery was forceful, and the audience was rapt as Campos’s story was finally aired publicly, albeit through a surrogate. The statement contended that, in violation of his legal duty, Calderon had never even filed a report with child protective services about her claim. “I trusted Mr. Calderon to handle the situation, but instead he failed me,” the statement read. “The school district failed me.”

The number of #TimesUpMUHSD supporters in attendance at that meeting was smaller than in the past; some had graduated, others were volunteering at another community event. But those who spoke were more direct, emphatic, and furious than ever as they directed commentary at Honey and the rest of the board as well as the district office leaders who sat alongside them — Constantino Aguilar, Ralph Calderon, and Alan Peterson. Miguel Hernández called on the board to remove Peterson if he would not fire Calderon. And one GWoC organizer chastised them for Hunter’s slap on the wrist, saying they didn’t care “because he’s part of the good ol’ boys network.”

Judy Calderon Ballard was in the audience that night, seated next to Heldman and Delgado. Also present was Marcia Bettencourt, who told me that after the summer passed without Peterson responding to her email about the rat, she’d filed formal complaints with the district. She doubted that Calderon’s department would take effective action, particularly after learning the law firm picked to lead the independent investigation was the same firm representing MUHSD in negotiations with Delgado. “How independent can it be?” she wondered. Ultimately, the investigation would fail to identify a culprit, and her concern that started it all — about the possible violation by a colleague — was deemed unfounded. (In regards to Bettencourt, MUHSD’s statement said, “We understand that individuals may not be happy with the investigatory outcomes, but when it involves their colleagues or anyone else — due process must be followed.”)

The comment period was closing as a GWoC student from Golden Valley, wearing a flannel shirt and pinned-up braids, demanded to speak. Honey pounded his gavel on the table and tried to talk over her, insisting that the time for public remarks had elapsed, but the audience would tolerate none of it. “Let her speak!” they shouted. “Let her speak!”

Eventually, board member Jose Valadez recommended that Honey allow it, and Aaliyah Jensen took the microphone. “I’m 17 years old, and I’m a sexual assault survivor,” she said. “Since the Merced Sun-Star put the article out last week about Keith Hunter, a lot of the young men have publicly voiced that they do not care what he did.” She continued, “Young women … are scared to walk around on campus … and me, myself… every day I am scared, and I don’t deserve to be scared.”

By the end of her statement, her face was flushed, her cheeks wet. When she swung around to face the MUHSD officials, who were shifting in their seats, she was screaming: “I am tired of letting older men control what is supposed to be done for me. Not for you! You have failed all students. Not just young women. Young men, too. Everyone.”

***

Apparently, Jensen wasn’t the only person who felt this way. In the November election, Board President Honey was unseated after 20 years by Tiffany Pickle, a technology director in a neighboring school district. The candidate supported by members of #TimesUpMUHSD, Tammie Calzadillas, failed to capture the other open board seat. Instead, it went to the superintendent’s pick, Erin Hamm. Although two women were now on a school board that so recently had none, their colleague Medearis told me that the plan for a student board member had been put on hold and internal discussion of a change in Calderon’s role had gone silent.

A week after the election, on Nov. 13, 2018, the maintenance worker, who had communicated with Delgado back in May, sent a complaint about Assistant Superintendent Aguilar to the human resources department. When she told her story in person at the district office, she says, Calderon pressured her to quit. To avoid further retaliation, she complied. (She was one of three female MUHSD workers who told me they resigned for this reason.) MUHSD did not comment, citing employee privacy.

Today, the service worker who allegedly harassed the cafeteria staff member remains employed by MUHSD, and the Buhach guard who Joslyn Campos reported continues to coach girls sports at Golden Valley. In the fall of 2018, he landed a job as a teacher in the Atwater Elementary School District.

Keith Hunter remains a teacher at Golden Valley and will soon embark on his 26th season as head coach of the basketball team.

Ralph Calderon still holds the second-highest position within MUHSD. At the October board meeting, Alan Peterson told me that all allegations brought to the podium were investigated and, in a later email, board member Richard Lopez said, “The district investigated the complaints against Mr. Calderon but did not find them to be ‘substantial’ and ‘well-founded.’” Neither responded when they were asked who led the investigations and whether it was a third party, given that only one person in the district office ranked higher than the accused. This year, Calderon received the regional Association of California School Administrators award for Personnel/Human Resources Administrator of the Year. He was nominated by Superintendent Peterson.

As for Delgado, she learned in March that her summer program for high-risk middle school students transitioning to MUHSD — the program that had earned White House recognition — was cancelled. A middle school administrator wrote in an email that it would be replaced by a similar program.

On the fourth Saturday of March, exactly two years after the Hall of Fame event where Delgado’s #MeToo story began, she helped convene more than 100 women from Merced County at the inaugural We Are Here Women’s Symposium, a biannual conference she cofounded to “increase the visibility and viability of female leadership in Merced to move the community forward.”

Delgado has gone on attending MUHSD meetings this year to see, she said, “if the board is ever going to compel its administrators to put the words of their policies into action.” Often, it seemed to Delgado that few positive changes had come of that letter she’d sent to her principal in October 2017. Students have come forward and in recent months, she said, more staff, too. This coming fall, three of the nine campus principals will be women, which is two more than in recent years. Policies are still being revised, Title IX information and online reporting is now offered on every campus website, and MUHSD’s action plan contains about 20 other reforms underway. It is progress — but with inconsistent enforcement, inequitable consequences, and distrusted leadership, it’s far from the cultural reform Delgado envisioned when she implored the MUHSD school board to “reshape this institution and the direction it is headed.”

At its inception, she’d thought of #MeToo as a movement happening somewhere else, for someone else, and so far, in one essential way, she’d been right. Women could go public with allegations against a celebrity or politician or prominent executive, and within days a television show would get cancelled or a CEO would step down. But in Merced, even when one woman’s complaint multiplied into many complaints, and even when her story exposed over a dozen similar stories across an entire public institution, leaders remained in their jobs, riding out the storm, and “earning their stripes,” as Honey had said.

But Delgado is pressing on. Earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission granted her permission to sue, and Time’s Up retained a second attorney on her behalf. On May 14, women’s rights litigation expert Claire Cochran filed a lawsuit for discrimination and retaliation against MUHSD. When I asked Delgado about it, she said the matter was now in the hands of her attorneys. In other words, she couldn’t talk anymore, and, besides, there wasn’t much else for her to say. She had told me many times why she kept fighting: “So that no one else has to go through what I went through.”

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+12 # Thomas Martin 2019-07-29 01:06
Thank you Annie Delgado, and thanks to all your supporters in Merced too - you have given, and even now are giving such a lot to help make ours a better world!
 
 
+5 # Texas Aggie 2019-07-29 10:17
I can see the same thing happening at the Texas high school where my kids went.
 
 
+5 # rural oregon progressive 2019-07-29 18:01
When I first saw this article, and realized how long it was, I closed it... About an hour later, I felt compelled to read it. I am so glad I did. I applaud the bravery of Ms. Delgado, and all of the young women who told their stories... I am pretty sure this is not unique to Merced. Far too many public institutions are run by, and governed by good-old-boy networks that operate with virtual impunity. I so hope that Annie Delgado wins her EEOC lawsuit. Thank you Sarah Fuss Kessler, for your wonderful accounting of this outrage.