Two years ago, Presentation High School hired a high-end PR firm to defend itself against claims that it mishandled sexual misconduct complaints by former students.
Today—after fierce public backlash and under entirely new leadership—the Catholic girls’ school has enlisted help from an independent law firm to investigate the allegations.
Recently-hired President Holly Elkins broke news of the probe Thursday evening in a letter addressed to the school’s students and alumni.
“During the past three months I have spent a good deal of time listening to many of you and learning about what makes our Pres family and this school so special,” she wrote. “At the same time, I have also heard disturbing stories about past reports of sexual abuse and misconduct and learned of many unresolved questions that have divided our community the past two years. These reports of abuse and misconduct are very upsetting.”
The list of former students who say they suffered sexual misconduct at the hands of their teachers and coaches has grown dozens of names long since Pres alum Kate Leehane penned an essay about the problem that the Washington Post published in 2017.
In her op-ed, the writer and activist detailed how she worked to find closure after detectives were unable to prosecute her case so many years before. Though the column didn’t mention the school by name, word quickly spread that Leehane was describing Presentation High. The article went viral.
Over the last year-and-a-half, Leehane, other survivors and community allies have criticized Pres administrators for failing to take action and violating California’s mandatory reporting laws for decades. They started a petition. They launched a website. They hired a lawyer to represent alleged victims. They drummed up media attention.
Leehane told San Jose Inside on Thursday that the just-launched inquiry is a “critical step in the right direction” and “represents the first real apology the survivors and the community have received.”
“However,” she added, “an external investigation differs from a criminal investigation. The San Jose Police Department still needs to investigate multiple crimes that are within the criminal statute of limitations—crimes including felony sexual assault, conspiracy and child endangerment.”
In January 2019, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office also declined to file charges against one of the school’s former water polo coaches. Presentation-grad Grace Leonis revealed last year that when she was 14-years old, her then-24-year-old coach Jenna Roe allegedly sexually assaulted her during a water polo tournament.
The decision to open the investigation came unanimously from Presentation High’s board of directors, according to Elkis. Deborah Maddux, of Van Dermyden Maddux Law Corporation, has been hired by the school to review “any reports of sexual abuse or misconduct by any Pres employee against any student through the history of the school.”
The law firm specializes in Title IX campus investigations and reportedly has no “direct connections” to Presentation.
“We are deeply sorry that any student was ever victimized during her time at Presentation and stand in support with all survivors of sexual abuse and misconduct,” Elkins wrote. “During this trying time, we hold all of our sisters in prayer and pray for healing for the survivors, their families, and friends. We apologize for the pain and divide these events have caused our entire community.”
Below is a copy of the email sent today by Presentation High’s administration.
September 26, 2019
Dear Pres Family,
During the past three months I have spent a good deal of time listening to many of you and learning about what makes our Pres family and this school so special. At the same time, I have also heard disturbing stories about past reports of sexual abuse and misconduct and learned of many unresolved questions that have divided our community the past two years. These reports of abuse and misconduct are very upsetting. As such, today I am writing to let you know that the Board of Directors and I have unanimously made the decision to launch an external investigation into any past reports of sexual abuse and misconduct and the handling of such allegations throughout the history of the school.
While this is difficult to communicate, it is vitally important that we have a complete and accurate understanding of any employee misconduct that may have occurred in the past so that we can ensure this doesn't happen again and so we may best support and protect every former, current, and future member of this community.
We are deeply sorry that any student was ever victimized during her time at Presentation and stand in support with all survivors of sexual abuse and misconduct. During this trying time, we hold all of our sisters in prayer and pray for healing for the survivors, their families, and friends. We apologize for the pain and divide these events have caused our entire community.
We have retained a team of trained investigators led by Deborah Maddux from Van Dermyden Maddux Law Corporation to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into any reports of sexual abuse or misconduct by any Pres employee against any student throughout the history of the school.
Deborah is a founding partner of Van Dermyden Maddux, a firm specializing in investigations into allegations of misconduct, including sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. Deborah's team specializes in conducting workplace and Title IX campus investigations and has decades of experience with similar matters for K-12 and higher education institutions throughout California. The firm has no direct connections with Presentation and has not been engaged by the school previously. Deborah will be assisted by Senior Associate Jennifer Doughty and Associate Lauren Becker. You can learn more about the firm and the investigative team on the firm's website, www.vmlawcorp.com.
We encourage anyone who may have experienced, is aware of, or who may have any relevant information regarding any alleged sexual misconduct by any faculty or staff member to contact the investigators directly. You can leave a message for the investigators on a dedicated hotline number they set up exclusively for the Pres community at (800) 490-7513, or you can send an email to Anne Maas, the Firm's Investigation Coordinator, at [email protected]. We want to assure everyone that upholding confidentiality will be a high priority. There may be instances where certain information must be shared, however, we will carefully assess these issues as the investigation unfolds, and are committed to handling all information in a manner that protects confidentiality to the highest degree possible.
Protecting the safety, welfare and health of our students is, and always will be, our primary concern. We have zero tolerance for sexual abuse and misconduct at Presentation. It is our policy and procedure to follow all relevant laws regarding any allegations of child abuse, including informing Child Protective Services or law enforcement as required by state law. We also conduct background checks through LiveScan and check the references of each potential employee before they are hired. In addition, our faculty participates in mandated reporter and abuse prevention training multiple times throughout the year, as well as state-required sexual harassment training. Last fall, Presentation established the Office of Prevention of Student Bullying, Harassment & Abuse, led by a Director who reports to the Board of Directors. More information about this program is available on our website.
We intend to share the findings of the investigation with the Pres family when it is concluded. At that time, no alumnae or student names will be shared publicly without an individual's express permission.
Thank you for your support of our efforts to examine our past in order to build and maintain a safe and thriving environment. Please join me in praying for our community.
Holly Elkins, President