Dominic Caserta is on paid leave pending an independent investigation into claims that he sexually harassed and bullied students, officials confirmed Friday.
“We are aware of our community’s questions and concerns, and we take student and staff safety very seriously,” Santa Clara Unified School District Superintendent Stanley Rose said in a prepared statement. “We have been challenged to immediately and directly respond to these questions and concerns due to confidentiality and due process laws and policies which apply to all of our certificated employees.”
Today’s message marks the first time since San Jose Inside broke news last week of the misconduct claims that the district has publicly mentioned Caserta by name.
“We are appalled and disappointed with these allegations,” the district’s communications staff continued in the email. “We are committed to ensuring that each allegation is thoroughly investigated. We take each and every claim seriously.”
Caserta’s fall from grace was stunningly swift.
The 43-year-old Santa Clara High School civics teacher resigned Tuesday from his Santa Clara Council seat and suspended his June primary bid for Santa Clara County supervisor after scores of former students and campaign volunteers accused him of sexual misconduct and harassment. One woman told police that the candidate pressed his clothed groin against her without her consent. Another accused him of stalking.
Political supporters reacted quickly to the allegations, pulling their endorsements within hours or days of hearing from Caserta’s accusers. The city wasted no time either. City officials invited victims to file police reports—of which there are a dozen so far—and convened a public hearing to invite them to air their grievances in an open forum.
Santa Clara Unified, on the other hand, has mostly responded with canned statements and jargon-laden press releases. That might have something to do with spokeswoman Jennifer Derrico being away on family leave, which began on May 1 and ends July 6. Whatever the case, students and parents have expressed frustration about the muted response from school officials.
While the district did announce that it would form a task force to identify ways to improve its harassment reporting and education, there was no invitation for students or parents to express their concerns in a public hearing. Students in Caserta’s class tell San Jose Inside that the high school made no discernible effort to inform them about their teacher’s absence or who to talk to if they’d like to file their own complaints.
Requests for records that could illustrate the scope of harassment claims against Caserta—as well as other teachers in the district—remain outstanding. SCUSD’s Title IX coordinator, Assistant Superintendent Andrew Lucia, had few ready answers about the district’s compliance with federal reporting guidelines.
Even the governing board has dodged media queries. Trustees directed questions to Board President Noelani Pearl Hunt, who has yet to respond.
Though he also declined San Jose Inside’s request for comment, fellow trustee Mark Richardson at least acknowledged the district’s silence in a Facebook post.
“Many of us have read reports of harassment and mistreatment of our students,” he wrote earlier this week. “Official responses have been made. Comments from the heart are long overdue.”
Richardson thanked the students and parents who spoke out about alleged abuses that stretched from the early 2000s to just this month.
“You should have never been mistreated, your trust should never have been betrayed,” he said. “I condemn any mistreatment of our students, past or present.”
While the district has to uphold a certain level of confidentiality because it’s dealing with a personnel issue, he said he wants to demonstrate that he has students’ interest at heart.
“I can offer you my apology, and I do,” he concluded. “It’s a poor thing to offer you, and I understand if it means very little to you. I would also like to offer you a promise; that promise is I’ll fight to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Caserta has firmly denied all harassment allegations, and tried to frame them as a political attack because they surfaced just weeks away from the June election. His abrupt withdrawal from public life certainly changes the course of the county election, in which he was a frontrunner. It also upends the balance of power in Santa Clara, where Mayor Lisa Gillmor stands to go from a 4-3 to 4-2 majority—and potentially a 5-2 majority, depending on who gets appointed or elected to fill Caserta’s seat.
“I ... serve as a local elected official and when I am campaigning there are often accusations made against me,” Caserta wrote on his campaign website last week. “I unequivocally deny these allegations. They are simply false and made up.”
He has since gone incommunicado.
Meanwhile, Santa Clara Unified is in a tough spot. It faces backlash from students and families who question the decision to keep Caserta employed despite multiple sustained sexual harassment allegations. And it faces legal liability for inadvertently sending out a small portion of Caserta’s personnel file to 1,600 employees, one of whom then forwarded the trove to San Jose Inside.
Until SCUSD responds to this newspaper’s California Public Record Act requests, it’s unclear how many complaints have been filed against Caserta in his two decades of teaching.
Leaked documents show that he was investigated for sexual harassment in 2002 and again in 2009 in addition to getting disciplined for policy violations such as soliciting campaign support from students and skipping work without bothering to schedule a substitute.
Savannah Nunez, 28, says she filed two complaints against Caserta in 2006 and 2007, but never heard about their disposition. The claims stemmed from months of relentless harassment, Nunez said, in which Caserta would persistently call her cellphone, stalk her at her waitressing job and once at her house to ask why she was resisting his attention.
Nunez, who acknowledges being a less-than-ideal student, would often skip class to avoid Caserta. But she says her teacher tried to use her academic struggles as leverage to control her, repeatedly trying to urge administrators to prevent her from participating in the graduation ceremony.
But then-Santa Clara High Principal Dave Grissom—who spoke with Nunez at the time, according to her recollection—failed to stop the abuse, which allegedly continued up through the very last day of her high school career.
“Nobody stood up for me, you know?” Nunez said in a phone call earlier this week.
Grissom, who has since left SCUSD to become principal of Mountain View High School, declined a request for comment.
Lydia Jungkind, the 19-year-old German exchange student who was the first to go public with her claims of sexual misconduct against Caserta, said she plans to attend the May 24 school board session to again have her say. According to the agenda for next week’s meeting, the board has set aside time for the public to discuss the harassment claims.
“I think the SCUSD has an obligation to hear out victims that experienced Dominic Caserta’s behavior firsthand,” said Jungkind, who met Caserta last year while he was teaching her political science class at Foothill College. “What he did to me, he did to other students as well.”