Middle school PE teacher on leave following sexual harassment claims

A Physical Education teacher at Aptos Middle School has been placed on administrative leave and dozens of other teachers are mobilizing to advocate against his return following allegations of sexual harassment made by multiple female students and at least one staff member last month.

A group of teachers walked out of a staff meeting on October 22 and organized a teach-in as part of an ongoing effort to inform each other about the San Francisco Unified School District’s policies and to share information about the district’s ongoing investigation into the allegations.

In the past week, they have launched a letter writing campaign with affected students seeking to permanently prevent PE coach Anthony Sylvestri from returning to Aptos.

“If they send him back, it’s too tense — the school would explode,” a teacher who requested anonymity told the San Francisco Examiner.

Two separate reports were filed in late September and early October by teachers at the school on behalf of female students alleging that Sylvestri behaved inappropriately in the way he spoke to and looked at students, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

The students allege that Sylvestri would “survey their bodies when they were speaking to him — like he was undressing them with his eyes,” according to the teacher at the school who supported the students in reporting Sylvestri to the school’s administration.

After those initial complaints, several more students and one teacher came forward with allegations that Sylvestri had touched them without consent.

“Another student said he touched her on her inner thigh,” said the teacher, who was unaware of whether Sylvestri has faced previous investigations by the school or district.

SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick confirmed on Friday that “a teacher” at the school remains on leave. Sylvestri, who has worked at the school for nearly two decades, was temporarily placed on leave in early October following the launch of an investigation into the allegations and has not returned, according to sources at the school.

Sylvestri was initially accused of “boundary violations” such as “calling female students pet names like baby, sweety, honey, hugging without consent, touching them on the small of their back,” according to the teacher, who helped file the reports.

“The first report was in response to a female student blurting out, ‘he’s a pervert everybody knows it,’” said the teacher. “I followed up with her and she said he would call her pet names, grab girls by the smalls of her back. Another girl felt grossed out by how he was looking at girls. He was checking them out.”

In a later letter to the district dated Nov. 9, a teacher in her sixth year at Aptos said that when she started teaching at the school, Sylvestri “would comment on my body quite often.”

“At one point, he actually made physical contact with me. He pressed me up against a counter from behind, he whispered in my ear and then walked away,” the female teacher wrote in the letter, which was shared with the Examiner. “At that point I let him know that his behavior was inappropriate.”

The teacher stated that she did not make a formal complaint at the time because she did “not want any lash back or problems.”

In a Nov. 2 letter addressed to parents that was shared with the Examiner, the school’s leadership wrote that it has been “working in conjunction with SFUSD personnel to investigate allegations of harassment from a teacher towards a number of students.”

The letter indicates that students at Aptos are required to participate in lessons on “healthy relationships, consent, establishing and maintaining boundaries in healthy relationships” as well as on what constitutes sexual harassment.

“We want students to feel safe telling adults if anyone makes them feel uncomfortable or behaves inappropriately,” reads the letter from the Aptos administration. “We are hopeful that these lessons will provide more education for all students, as well as additional tools for any students who feel they need to learn about how to communicate when they are feeling uncomfortable.”

But an eighth grade student at Aptos who filed the initial report about the harassment told the Examiner that she did not feel like her complaint was “being taken seriously.”

“A lot of the students at my school like him as a teacher. When they heard the complaint the girls were making everyone thought it was a joke,” said the student, who requested anonymity.

“For the most part he is a good coach. He teaches basketball and he does it good. But at the same time if you were ever in our shoes, it would be a different feeling.”

The student’s teacher said that he and several other faculty members took issue with the manner in which the district has handled the investigation.

District and site administrators “began pulling girls from classes to be interviewed without informing teachers,” including the teachers who supported the students in making the reports, said the teacher.

“One of my students came back from being questioned by two male administrators and had a panic attack in class,” he said. “When I talked to her privately she told me she felt she did something wrong and was afraid [Sylvestri] would get fired because of her.”

The teacher said that he later found out that school administrators had not contacted the students’ parents prior to the questioning.

Nine students were pulled out of their classes in the week after Sylvestri was placed on leave, and they were told that Sylvestri would return to the school “because it was the first time these reports had been made and that he ‘deserved a second chance,’” the teacher said.

That revelation led to pushback from some students and staff at Aptos. They are calling for a redesign of the process for reporting, investigating and resolving allegations of sexual harassment and institutionalized training to develop a “trauma-informed, transformative justice -oriented community response” to such allegations.

A letter from the school’s counselor that was shared with the Examiner states that the students involved in filing the reports fear retaliation.

“I have seen them physically crumble, get nauseous, sick, break out in tears and shake all over the potential of his return,” the counselor wrote.

She also criticized the district for not using “best practices” in interviewing the students about the harassment, and confirmed that the students who filed the report fear retaliation.

According to the letter, the female students were “not given the choice to have a parent or female advocate present” during their interviews with school and district representatives, although a female administrator was present at some.

“As a counselor I was trained that parents must always be notified when an incident occurs. With the nature of this situation, parents should have been notified prior to the interview. I was told they were not notified until after the interview,” the counselor’s letter reads. “The protocol and the severity of the situation dictate that these minors should have had representation and support.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

Laura Waxmann
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