Editor’s note: Due to concerns of retaliation from people in the community, we have used pseudonyms for the subject of the story, her family, and her former classmate. We have also used a pseudonym to refer to the teacher accused of harassment to keep the focus of the story on systemic concerns within schools and districts. No criminal charges or civil claims were filed. This story contains descriptions of sexual harassment and assault. Please read with care.
Sondra* says she was only fourteen years old when one of her teachers started paying special attention to her. In 2003, Sondra was a sophomore at West Valley, a Shasta County high school located in the town of Cottonwood, population 3,000.
“I started noticing him looking at my chest” Sondra alleges, “I could tell he was looking at me inappropriately and it made me very uncomfortable.” In a complaint filed with the school in 2003, Sondra, her parents, and a classmate allege a pattern of looks, statements, and physical contact by the teacher, who was also a West Valley coach.
Speaking to Shasta Scout recently, that teacher denies ever touching Sondra or sexually harassing her. A letter placed in the teacher’s file in 2004 indicates that an internal investigation by the Anderson Union High School District (AUHSD) did not sustain allegations of staring at the student in a sexual manner, providing inappropriate personal information, or inappropriate physical touch, but AUHSD did correct the teacher for repeatedly making inappropriate comments to Sondra and other students.
Recent West Valley Hazing Allegations
In May 2021, West Valley, a small-town high school known for its successful football team, was rocked by hazing allegations when four John Doe students, former football players for the school, filed a complaint against the school district alleging personal injury, breach of fiduciary duty, and violation of state education laws. Allegations include claims that some students were sexually assaulted by other football players in 2019 and 2020 as part of an ongoing culture of sexual harassment on the team.
The complaint alleges that the team’s head coach at the time, Greg Grandell, who coached for the school from 1987-2020, was aware of the alleged hazing and assaults and “launched a cover-up.” It also claims the school administration who, the complaint says, either knew or should have known about the alleged infractions, failed to intervene.
Gregg Cohen, an attorney for Grandell and two other coaches at West Valley, said at a news conference in November of 2020, when allegations first became public, that rumors that the coaches knew of or were involved in alleged hazing activity are “absolutely untrue.” Grandell resigned a day after that news conference saying he would cooperate fully with investigators and would “like to know the truth” about what happened on the team.
After the lawsuit was filed in May 2021 Victor Hopper, AUHSD Superintendent said that the district was cooperating with a criminal investigation by the Sheriff’s department and is committed to building “schools that are safe and welcoming towards all students.”
Old and New Allegations
“Sondra” first approached Shasta Scout immediately after the recent civil rights complaint against West Valley became public, alleging that she too was sexually harassed and assaulted while at the school—not by football players, but by a teacher and coach. Her story, and the public records Shasta Scout obtained, indicate important similarities between the two series of incidents.
Both then and now, the West Valley students who allege sexual harassment and assault say they faced a hostile environment that created barriers to their ability to learn at school. AUHSD’s Title IX investigation into the recent John Doe allegations yielded “inconclusive” findings. And eighteen years ago, the district opened an internal investigation that did not meet the standards of a Title IX investigation.
Similarly, while law enforcement was involved in both situations, much remains unknown about the outcome of any criminal investigations. In regard to the recent John Doe allegations, a year later the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office and the Shasta County District Attorney’s Office have not commented on the case, with the DA’s office citing the involvement of juveniles. In the case of Sondra’s allegations eighteen years ago, law enforcement left the case open and pending, with apparently no record of investigation into a report by West Valley of “an assault and possible improprieties” towards a minor, by her teacher.
Laura Palumbo, Communications Director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, says that’s unfortunately not unusual. She says her organization often sees cases that fall through the cracks of the criminal justice system. In many cases, she says, that’s because the person accused of abuse leverages their relationships and their social capital.
“They are often intentionally acting in ways that toe the line as far as what is appropriate and inappropriate,” Palumbo explains, “They’re trying to test boundaries and normalize their behavior in that context.” That’s why, she says, law enforcement and school officials must be aware of common patterns in sexual harassment and assault and be prepared to respond to them.
While Sondra came forward to her parents and the school with her allegations within a few months after she claims they occurred, it can often take years for sexual harassment and assault victims to report, says Dr. Joel Levin, Cofounder of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools. “For many reasons,” Levin says, “it’s not at all uncommon for victims of child sexual abuse to remain silent for months, years, and even decades. Especially when the perpetrator was a trusted adult, it can take years for victims to accept that what happened to them was abuse.”
Sondra’s Allegations of Sexual Harassment
Eighteen years ago “Sondra” was in her second year at West Valley. One of her teachers, “Coach Z*” was also part of West Valley’s athletic staff. Coach Z is not among the coaches named in recent allegations and Grandell, who worked at the school in 2003, denies any knowledge of Sondra’s allegations against Coach Z.
According to documents Shasta Scout received from West Valley, in 2003 Sondra’s parents reported to to the school that Coach Z engaged in behaviors that, if true, would clearly have violated their sexual harassment policy. Those alleged behaviors included staring at her in a sexual manner, providing inappropriate personal information to her, touching her in an inappropriate manner, and making inappropriate comments to her and other students.
A former classmate at West Valley, “Casey*” told Shasta Scout they witnessed some of these events and Sondra’s mother, “Allison*” says Sondra recounted most of them to her in 2003, shortly after they happened.
According to Allison, her daughter first discussed Coach Z’s unwanted attention early in the academic year. Allison was immediately concerned and suggested going to the West Valley school administration to address the situation. But Sondra was worried about retaliation, Allison says, and was afraid her fellow students might turn on her if they found out she had made accusations against a reportedly popular coach.
That fear is a common response to victimization, says Brenda Star Adams, an attorney who spoke to Shasta Scout while working for Equal Rights Advocates as Senior Counsel for Education Equity and Litigation, “In almost any context, fear of retaliation is one of the top reasons why victims of sexual harassment and assault do not come forward, along with fear of disbelief or inaction,” Adams said.
“Approximately 90% of victims never report at all,” she continued, “And their fears are valid. Studies show that victims of sexual harassment experience retaliation approximately 75% of the time.” The barriers to reporting are even worse for victims of color, Adams said, especially Black and Latinx victims, because they are even less likely to be believed.
Instead of reporting Coach Z, Sondra decided to change how she dressed, her mother says. They went shopping together for looser clothing with higher necklines, which Sondra started wearing to school each day.
But in late fall, Sondra alleges Coach Z assaulted her as she stood in front of the class, preparing to hand out paperwork. Casey, who was sitting in class that day, told Shasta Scout that Coach Z grabbed Sondra by her ponytail with his left hand, and pulled her back against his chest before running his right hand over parts of Sondra’s body, including her hair, head and back.
Sondra says she remembers trying to walk forward and away from Coach Z as he touched her, and being prevented from doing so by his firm grasp on her hair. She says she remembers her friend Casey avoiding eye contact as she looked out into the class and how her own heart fell in response. “I just remember thinking, ‘Is no one going to say anything?” Sondra says now. “I remember thinking ‘Stay calm, just get out of this.’”
Separately, both Sondra and Casey described experiencing a similar feeling during the incident, of being out of body, unable to respond or react. Both said they remember boys in the classroom erupting into cheering and whistling as they watched Coach Z’s actions. “He finally winked at me and laughed and let me go,” Sondra says, “I felt so violated and disgusting.”
Sondra says when she returned to her seat a student whispered to her, “You should hear what we say about you.” That student’s comment was the beginning of what Sondra says became months of harassment by other students. By the time class finished that day it seemed to Sondra that the news of what had happened in class was already getting out. At the lockers after class, she says, several girls called her Coach Z’s “ho.”
Coach Z told Shasta Scout he denies all of this and has never touched or grabbed students. But a letter of reprimand in Coach Z’s file states that Coach Z did physically touch Sondra on her “hair, head and back,” and that Sondra perceived this to be a sexual gesture that made her afraid to return to his class.
Sondra says she waited until bedtime that night to tell her mother what had happened, describing Coach Z’s actions in detail. Her mother’s memories of that night are still sharp almost two decades later: her teenage daughter asking to be held and rocked, showing her mother what Coach Z had done to her. “I was furious, and sickened,” Allison says. “Watching her show me how he held her, the way his fingers wrapped into her hair … it was sexual through and through.”
Parents Report Allegations of Harassment, Assault
For the first time, and against Sondra’s wishes, Allison says, she shared with her husband “Peter*” what had been happening. She also decided to inform the school. “I told [Sondra], ‘This is out of your hands now,” she said. That night, Allison wrote a letter that both she and Peter signed and delivered in person while Sondra stayed home from school.
“I walked into the principal’s office,” her father remembers, “and I handed him the letter. And I said, ‘your teacher is sexually harassing my daughter.’”
Sondra’s parents were pleased when the school seemed to take their report seriously. Referring to West Valley’s Principal at the time, Karl Stemmler, who they say received their letter in person, Allison said, “He seemed so serious and so concerned. We trusted him. It never occurred to us to go to a lawyer.” Documentation shows Stemmler immediately contacted Child Protective Services and law enforcement after receiving the letter on December 8, 2003. Later documentation shows he also placed Coach Z on leave, pending an investigation.
Reported Assault by CPS/West Valley to Law Enforcement
A subsequent police report, dated December 9 and signed by Deputy John Gardner of the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, indicates that a CPS staff member had reported “an assault and possible improprieties by a teacher towards a female student.” In the report, Garner categorized the assault as PC 647.6(a), a misdemeanor also known as “molest or annoy.”
Deputy Luce was the school resource officer assigned by the Sheriff’s Office to West Valley. As such, it appears from the police report that she was assigned to conduct an investigation. But the police report maintains no additional information concerning an investigation into the alleged misdemeanor, ending with the words “pending further investigation by Deputy Luce.”
That lack of investigation records is irregular, according to Sergeant Wallace, head of the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Division. Wallace told Shasta Scout it’s unclear why a report alleging criminal abuse of a minor was left open and pending.
According to Title IX attorney Adams, such errors and omissions by law enforcement are unfortunately common in these kinds of allegations and are one of the reasons why federal Title IX law exists.
School District Opens Internal Investigation That Does Not Meet Title IX Standards
Under Title IX, AUHSD was responsible to investigate Sondra’s allegations of sexual harassment and of inappropriate touching. Title IX protections also required that the school provide a written report of the investigation, prompt action to prevent any possible future harassment or retaliation, counseling or other supportive services, and notification of a claimant’s right to file a federal civil rights complaint.
Dennis Boyle, who was the Superintendent of AUHSD in 2003, told Shasta Scout the school did conduct an internal investigation but said he is unable to recall details of the school’s investigation process, or who was put in charge. Throughout his career, Boyle said, he worked thoroughly and carefully to address all such allegations. “My own kids went to West Valley,” Boyle said, “we never let a single thing drop.” Boyle said the school’s internal investigation was not meant to meet Title IX standards because, he said, “This wasn’t a Title IX thing. Title IX is for sports.”
But Title IX isn’t just for sports. The law covers all forms of discrimination in education, including, according to both the Justice Department and the Department of Education, sexual harassment in schools. Adams calls the district’s failure to conduct a Title IX investigation of Sondra’s allegations “tragic.”
“It is disturbing—but not at all surprising—that a school superintendent would erroneously state that Title IX applies only to athletics,” Adams says. “For decades, Title IX has also protected students from all forms of sex discrimination, including sexual harassment and assault, and it requires schools to take effective action to end the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and remedy its effects.”
Allison said she and her husband Peter did not know about or understand Title IX protections at the time the school was investigating. That’s why, she said, they accepted the school’s internal investigation as the best that could be done. “I can’t believe how innocent Peter and I were,” she says now, “We trusted the school to guide us. We trusted them to have our child’s best interests at heart. They didn’t and that is what makes this whole story, all of it, so horrific.”
The process of sharing the allegations with school administrators during the internal investigation was extremely difficult for Sondra, her mother says. Sondra says she struggled to answer questions by male administrators that felt unfair: “They said, ‘we’re sorry this happened,’ but also ‘could you possibly be misremembering?’ and ‘are you sure you weren’t misinterpreting his actions?’” she alleges.
Ongoing Harassment and Retaliation by Peers
Meanwhile, Sondra continued to attend school where she says ongoing harassment from her peers was even harder to bear than the unwanted attention from Coach Z.
She describes “relentless bullying” in the halls, classrooms, and on the bus, and says she began to spend her lunch periods in the bathroom, eating alone. Notes were shoved into her locker, she says, asking things like, “how big is (Coach Z’s) d*ck?” and girls she had participated in extracurriculars with, turned on her saying, “You’re the girl that filed the false report about (Coach Z), aren’t you?”
Although the letter from Sondra’s parents to West Valley indicated their concern about the possibility of ongoing harassment, neither Sondra nor her parents documented these details to school staff at the time, and they are not noted in documents retained by the school.
Casey confirms Sondra’s account, saying other students asked for confirmation of a rumor going around school. Was it true, Casey says the students asked, that Sondra had enjoyed what Coach Z did to her in classroom so much she had gone to his house later and had sex with him? Somehow, Casey says, the rumor had become mostly about “her being a whore who had slept with a teacher.”
This kind of ongoing harassment by fellow students is specifically addressed by the Office of Education’s Sexual Harassment Education Guidance (2001) which requires schools to prevent both further harassment and any retaliation. That guidance document says at a minimum, prevention should include ensuring students and parents know how to report subsequent problems, and following up with them to see if there have been any new incidents or retaliation. The school may also need to provide training for the larger school community.
Palumbo told Shasta Scout “In situations like this where comments and incidents occur in front of other students, there is no way that the incident is unknown not only to the administration but to teachers and members of the student body.”
“These things are often the open secret of the school,” Palumbo said, “likely very much a part of the rumor mill, and this is the reason why schools need to take it seriously so that they are not allowing a climate where that kind of behavior is normalized.”
Internal Investigation Sustains Allegation of Inappropriate Comments in Class
In what he thinks was early January 2004, Sondra’s father “Peter*” said he received a call from Boyle, who told him that the school’s internal investigation had corroborated significant, confirmable aspects of the allegations. As a result, he was told, a disciplinary letter was being placed in Coach’s personnel file. Shasta Scout obtained a redacted copy of Boyle’s letter to Coach Z, dated January 10, 2004, from AUHSD’s lawyers, via repeated California Public Records Act requests.
In the letter, Boyle mentions the four specific allegations made by Sondra’s parents: staring at the student in a sexual manner, touching the student in an inappropriate manner, making inappropriate comments to her and others, and sharing inappropriate personal information with her. He describes Coach’s actions when he touched Sondra’s “hair, neck and back,” as having created a hostile environment for her, saying “she perceived this touch to be sexual,” but also saying that the allegations of sexual look, sexual touch and sexual comments to Sondra were not sustained by the investigation.
The fourth allegation, that Coach Z had made inappropriate comments to Sondra and to other students, was sustained, Boyle writes, documenting eleven incidents of confirmed inappropriate conversation by Coach Z in his role as a teacher. Some are the same statements already alleged by Sondra’s parents in their letter to the school.
Coach Z told Shasta Scout that these statements were “lesson-related stories perceived in an unintended manner.”
Boyle also writes in the letter that he knows Coach Z is a caring and compassionate teacher who has dedicated years of his life to his students and athletes. He will return to the classroom and coaching, Boyle writes, but should be more careful of the language he uses. He should also be aware of his body language and of not getting too close to students in a way that may take up their space. In summary, the letter says, he should rid his classroom of negative behaviors while maintaining the positive ones.
After AUHSD’s investigation into the 2003 allegations, Coach Z told Shasta Scout, he accepted the investigation results and adhered to the district’s recommendations while continuing to teach for the district.
West Valley Fails to Create Space Between Student and Alleged Harasser
With the investigation concluded, and Coach Z back in school, Sondra says she was terrified to realize she was expected to return to Coach Z’s class. But at the last moment, she says, another teacher stepped forward to offer her a place in his class. Shasta Scout spoke with the teacher, who says he was not aware of allegations of sexual assault and harassment but could clearly see the significant emotional distress Sondra was experiencing during that time. In 2018, as part of that teacher’s retirement gift, Sondra wrote a letter thanking him for his role in her life.
“I still remember the terror and humiliation I felt when I heard that I was being placed back into (Coach Z’s) class after enduring months of harassment and abuse. I was being bullied and tormented in the hallways and having vulgar notes stuffed into my locker. The idea of having to walk back into his classroom and finish the school year frightened me beyond words. The day I was supposed to resume my normal schedule, I came to school prepared to face my fear when I got called into the Principles (sic) office where he told me that you had opened your classroom to me … instead of making me go back to (Coach Z’s) class. I sat in his office and cried tears of relief for I don’t know how long. The weeks prior to getting that news had been a circus, and I felt poked and prodded, doubted and called a liar. It felt like the adults around me who were supposed to protect me had turned a blind eye and were sending me back into the lion’s den.”
An excerpt from a letter by Sondra to the West Valley teacher who offered her a place in his class as an alternative to returning to Coach Z’s classroom.
Years Later, Sondra and Casey Say They Continue to Be Affected by School and District Failures
Sondra, who is now in her thirties, said she spent more than a decade in counseling to address the effects of her experience with Coach Z and the school’s failure to support her. “I did everything you’re supposed to,” Sondra says, “I told people what happened, and they ignored my voice. It was like I didn’t even matter.”
Casey feels similarly and says when Coach Z was returned to the classroom, “the overwhelming feeling was of being unsafe and unable to trust adults.” Casey also continues to address what happened through counseling.
But, Sondra says, it’s important for people to remember this is not about a single teacher or coach but about a series of systemic failures.
Levin also emphasized this point, saying that failure to adequately address allegations of sexual harassment can lead to repeated cycles of abuse. “Educators who sexually harass students are frequently serial abusers,” Levin said, “By covering up educator or staff sexual misconduct, or looking the other way, schools enable abusers who go on to harm students year after year.” Shasta Scout is not aware of any additional claims of sexual harassment or assault by Coach Z.
In a recent interview with KRCR, the John Doe plaintiffs’ mothers said they had promised their sons that reporting the alleged assaults would be worthwhile, but now wonder if it was. According to KRCR, “Parents expected it could take at least a year to get justice, but now that year has come and gone and they are left feeling abandoned by the law enforcement officials they trusted to hold the people who hurt their sons accountable.”
Sondra says the mothers’ statements highlight the similarities between how she feels officials failed to address her concerns, and theirs. That’s why she’s coming forward now, Sondra says, to stand behind the recent alleged victims of sexual assault at West Valley and support them. And to speak up for herself.
“I’m so angry this is still happening,” Sondra says, “I’m ready to make them hear my voice.”
*Sondra, Allison, Peter, and Casey are pseudonyms used because of concerns of retaliation from people in the community
This story is part of Shasta Scout’s ongoing coverage of West Valley. If you have information to share about West Valley or other Shasta County schools, on or off the record, please contact [email protected]. We are serious about confidentiality and will never share your information without your explicit permission. If you have a correction to this story you can tell us here.