(LOS ANGELES) — Chelsea Burkett was a 16-year-old student when one of her teachers targeted her for sexual abuse.
“He first kissed me in this park in L.A.," Chelsea told ABC News' Nightline. "It was scary and it felt weird and gross. And, once he started abusing me it was just like accelerated very very quickly.”
The perpetrator was Joseph Koetters, a longtime English teacher at Marlborough, a prestigious all-girls school in Los Angeles.
For Chelsea, now 32, what started as mental manipulation eventually crossed all lines “When I got pregnant, this part of me that I thought I was, this like woman who is sophisticated and like worldly and wise just fell apart,” she said. “So I continue to go through the motions but I was just kind of like dead inside.”
She says her trauma reached a crisis on a winter morning when driving to a friend’s house to work on a school project. “I got like massive cramps in the car and I was really really scared," she said. "By the time we got to her house… I ran straight in the front door straight past her mom and miscarried in the bathroom."
The shame and self-blaming lasted more than a decade, as Chelsea kept her harrowing experiences private. “I became like severely bulimic when I got pregnant and was for over seven years," she said. "I tried to kill myself in college… my sort of working assumption in life was that I wasn't worth anything."
Then a moment came in June 2014 that made her see differently, when another Marlborough alum broke her silence with similar allegations against the same teacher.
In a special edition of Nightline, Chelsea and another survivor of alleged abuse by educators, Nallely Hernandez, are stepping out of the shadows to tell their stories publicly for the first time. Both women are now in the midst of civil suits associated with a practice known as "passing the trash."
“Passing the trash” occurs when a teacher accused of sexual misconduct is allowed to leave a school — through a confidentiality or separation agreement — and quietly seek employment at another school without the new employer being alerted to the allegations, according to S.E.S.A.M.E. (Stop Educator Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation), an organization dedicated to the prevention of sexual abuse by school employees.
It wasn’t until years after graduating from Marlborough, that Chelsea found the courage to report her abuse to the school. Fearing the abuse may be continuing unabated, Chelsea came forward to Marlborough in a letter, prompting the school to launch an investigation into Koetters, that found a long-held pattern of sexual misconduct at their school. Chelsea believes her former teacher is another example of what it is to “pass the trash,” now alleging in a civil suit that his was a pattern of bad behavior that began before Marlborough when Koetters taught at another private school called Viewpoint.
Chelsea’s attorney Dave Ring said Koetters “only taught there [at Viewpoint] for one year because he got fired for having a physical altercation with a student. But what happened was, mysteriously enough, Viewpoint gave Mr. Koetters glowing recommendations.”
In a statement to ABC News, Viewpoint said that Koetters was terminated after he “shoved a male student during an altercation… there was no sexual misconduct of any kind that came to the attention of the school,” adding, “while Koetters did obtain a recommendation letter from his department chair, he did so by assuring that teacher that he had disclosed the shoving incident to the school where he was applying for a position.” Read Viewpoint School's full statement to ABC News HERE.
Marlborough also provided a statement to ABC News saying, it “had no knowledge of Koetters’s sexual abuse of the two former students … until our alumna courageously reported her abuse to the school in 2014.” And that “when the school hired him… Koetters received positive recommendations from his prior employer.” Read Marlborough School's full statement to ABC News HERE.
Koetters declined ABC News' requests for a statement or an interview.
Cases like Chelsea’s and Nallely’s were part of a year-long investigation into “passing the trash” by USA Today reporter Steve Reilly. A December 2010 United States Government Accountability Office report entitled, “K-12 Education: Selected Cases of Public and Private Schools That Hired or Retained Individuals with Histories of Sexual Misconduct,” found that in its study, on average one child predator in schools had as many as 73 victims, sometimes without ever being caught. The Department of Education estimates that 4.5 million students are subject to sexual misconduct by a school employee sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade.
Ten years ago, Nallely Hernandez, now 19, was in teacher Gary Gregor’s fourth grade class at Fairview Elementary School in Española, New Mexico. Nallely says Gregor showered her and her friends with gifts.
“I remember getting a white T-shirt with purple flowers on it and it said my name on it," she said.
ABC News obtained rare footage of Nallely as a young girl, struggling to find the right words to tell her dark story of alleged abuse in her elementary school classroom. The footage is part of an interview Nallely gave during a 2009 police investigation into alleged abuse at her school. In the video, young Nallely says, “I used to always wear my jacket and then never wear skirts, I always used to wear pants because I was afraid.”
Looking back on it, Nallely told Nightline, “The thing that I remember the most was feeling the warmth of his breath. Next to my face and my ear or his lips touching mine and it just didn't feel right and I didn't want it and I wanted it to end but I was so afraid.”
It turns out the alleged misconduct by Gregor was happening to Nallely and her friends after there had already been reports of a pattern of similar alleged improper conduct against Gregor during the years prior. Allegations of improper misconduct followed Gregor for years across two school districts, from state to state, classroom to classroom.
Long before Nallely, Gary Gregor taught fifth grade in Utah, in 1995, the state charging him with sexual abuse of a child. A district judge dismissed the charges citing insufficient proof, but the state board of education issued Gregor a reprimand. He was then hired as a teacher in two other schools in Montana and New Mexico, before becoming a fourth grade teacher in Santa Fe.
There, during a field trip in 2004, museum staff reported seeing Gregor inappropriately touching students. The school investigated, finding that Gregor hugged and tickled the girls — the principal writing in a statement, “I believe this may be ‘grooming’ behavior on the part of Dr. Gregor.
Later that year, Santa Fe Public Schools and Gregor signed an agreement that he would resign and not apply for another position within the school district, and in exchange, he would receive a neutral recommendation. Gregor has denied wrongdoing in connection with all of these allegations. ABC News' repeated requests for an interview with Gregor were not returned.
“A neutral recommendation essentially means if you're called about somebody, that you say yes he worked for us, and here's the date of hire and here's the day he left. And you shouldn't allow a teacher to have a neutral recommendation who you've given this kind of reprimand,” said Cammie Nichols, Nallely’s attorney.
“They basically say we're going to fire you. But you know what, we'll let you resign instead. We'll grease the wheels so that you can go get a job somewhere else, as long as it's not here at our school,” added attorney Dave Ring, who says he has litigated passing the trash cases for more than 20 years.
Agreements like this are what Congress aimed to stamp out when it passed a 2015 law requiring states to prohibit helping a school employee find a new job after sexual misconduct is found or even suspected. This bipartisan effort was spearheaded by U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who described "passing the trash" as “the horrific practice of a school helping a pedophile obtain a new job at another school.” But the law didn’t require background checks on school employees, and with 45 states yet to implement regulations, critics say it has no teeth.
Only five states — Washington, Oregon, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Connecticut — have laws banning passing the trash, notes Terri Miller, S.E.S.A.M.E. president.
“What we find is that an adult in the workplace is more protected against abuse that a child in a school,” Reilly added. “That child doesn’t have generally an attorney advocating for them. They don't have a union behind them and it's a child on their own reporting to responsible adults.”
Despite existing laws in most states requiring schools to report suspected child abuse, Reilly says he found in his reporting that it was extremely rare for administrators who did not report suspected abuse to be held criminally accountable.
Nallely was one of the few who came forward to accuse Gregor by reporting the alleged abuse to the principal, Ruby Montoya. “We told her that he was touching us inappropriately, but her response was that she knew him very well, and that he was a good friend of hers and she knew that he wouldn’t do that,” recalled Nallely.
Nallely says Montoya came into the classroom to reprimand them, placing the blame squarely on the girls. But court documents also show that Nallely and her friends weren’t the only ones to report Gregor’s misconduct to Montoya -- a concerned mother says she had complained several times and another a teacher reported inappropriate behavior.
Nallely’s friend eventually told her own parents, prompting them to call the police, who then conducted an investigation. But once the police forwarded their report to the district attorney’s office, the case languished, to date, there has been no prosecution.
In a statement to ABC News through her attorney, Montoya said that she has “dedicated herself to public education for over 25 years” and that she “absolutely denied” Nallely’s allegations, adding, they “are not supported by the case facts… and Ms. Montoya has faith that all claims against her will be dismissed in the court proceeding.” Read Ruby Montoya's attorney's full statement to ABC News HERE.
New Mexico’s Attorney General Hector Balderas told "Nightline" that there were “obvious systemic failures” adding that “we have a system right now that favors employment rights over students’ safety rights. It's a real wake up call for the country. The burden unfortunately is put on the backs of young students and we have predators who are trained to groom.”
Ten years after those days in Gregor’s fourth grade class that Nallely dreaded, she has filed civil suits against Gregor and Montoya. In court documents, Gregor and Montoya have both denied wrongdoing. Nallely may now also face Gregor in a criminal court, as well.
“We have gathered and secured enough evidence that we will be moving forward and have notified the individual in question for a grand jury hearing,” Balderas said. “I was appalled by this case. We are pursuing all options of any potential individuals who failed to provide safety security and protection for these children,” he added.
Until the laws and enforcement of the laws change, the onus is on the parents, said Dr. Charles Hobson, the author of “Passing the Trash.” He recommended that parents personally meet with their children’s educators and demand two things: “I never want my child to be alone with a school employee and I never want my child touched by a school employee unless it is a medical necessity.” He added that parents also have to educate their children about these issues to ensure their safety at school.
Chelsea says she hopes that sharing her story will shed light on educator sexual abuse and passing the trash.
“I can't describe it other than, you know, feeling so viscerally what I went through, and wanting so viscerally to not let anyone else go through it,” she said.
For Nallely, she dreams of making a positive difference in the lives of children.
“I've actually considered being a teacher,” she said. “I love children so much and I know that there's so much that I can do for them.”
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