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October 23, 2021

Investigator: SLV Teacher ‘Engaged in Predatory Grooming’

When Leann Anderson was a senior at San Lorenzo Valley High School, during the 2018-19 school year, physical contact she says she received from social studies teacher Eric Kahl started to cross a line.

He would take her away from her schoolwork to have conversations with her, and he’d hold hands with her randomly, she says.

“I would feel his hand just awkwardly brush against my entire [buttocks],” she said.

Anderson says her classmates would tell her, “Oh, well, you know how Kahl is. He’s just a laid-back hippie dude.”

Anderson sent a complaint letter to the San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District on March 29. That filing and dozens of other allegations in mostly anonymous social media posts caused the district to reckon with just how safe the learning environment in the mountain education system is.

At their Sept. 14 meeting, school board trustees decided to let Kahl resign, and, in exchange, Kahl agreed not to sue over his departure.

Kahl’s lawyer, Joe Cisneros, of Monterey-based Biegel Law Firm, did not respond to a request for comment, however he has previously denied the allegations against his client to the Press Banner.

Kahl was one of two employees, alongside science teacher William Winkler, placed on leave, which then-superintendent Laurie Bruton announced in an April 1 letter.

The district retained independent investigator Susan Liberati, the founder of Liberati & Associates, a firm that focuses on employee and manager misconduct, sexual harassment and retaliation situations probes, to look into the situation.

As the investigation began, hundreds of messages flooded Anderson’s inbox on social media, as well as to the Santa Cruz Survivors Speak Instagram page.

It was overwhelming, Anderson remembers.

“I was getting 10 (direct messages) an hour at one point,” she said. “It was really intense for the first two-and-a-half weeks.”

Anderson says many of the messages were from people who wanted advice about how they should respond to inappropriate behavior they claimed to have experienced at SLVUSD, too.

Andrew Lucia, the district’s chief human resources officer, sent Anderson a complaint closure letter, three days after SLVUSD and Kahl agreed to part ways.

The letter, which was obtained by the Press Banner, outlined the results of Liberati’s investigation into Kahl and made findings by deciding whether a claim had more than a 50% chance of being true.

“Based on a preponderance of the evidence, it is clear that Eric Kahl behaved inappropriately on numerous occasions around current and former students and was irresponsible and negligent as a teacher,” it stated. “It is clear that Mr. Kahl subjected female students to unwelcome subtle sexual advances, made numerous sexual comments and treated female students in a disrespectful manner.”

The investigator also found Kahl “engaged in predatory grooming behaviors with current and former students.”

But in an interview with the Press Banner, Jacob Avery, a 22-year-old from Boulder Creek, who was Kahl’s teaching assistant for three years, says he never once saw Kahl act inappropriately.

While he didn’t discount the stories from Anderson, or others, he said Kahl’s casual instruction methods actually helped him turn his life around.

“I don’t know the situation fully,” he said. “Eric Kahl is not a bad guy. He loves his kid. He loves his wife.”

Avery recalled that when he told Kahl about personal challenges he was facing, the teacher told him to “hold your own” and “just pick your head up.” Avery says he appreciated how Kahl wouldn’t talk down to him.

“I was more of a friend than a student,” he said. “He’d tell me about his life. He’d tell me about his child.”

But Carmen Tellez, a 28-year-old former student of Kahl’s who now lives in New York, said the teacher’s behavior with students went well beyond informal interactions.

She says Kahl told her about having sex with his wife, consoled her by telling her she was “hot” after she broke up with a boyfriend at age 14 or 15 and got her to help him delete some sexually explicit audio from his work computer.

Tellez says she, too, got a letter from the district in the past week confirming the allegations against Kahl had been sustained.

“In a perfect world Kahl would never have had inappropriate conversations,” she said, adding she’s glad the district seems to have taken this case seriously. “I appreciate that they did their investigation, and I appreciate that they credited the experiences, or reports, of the people who spoke with them.”

Tellez says she didn’t have a particularly strong response to the news, explaining she feels it’s the “logical consequence” of Kahl’s actions.

“My hope has always been for SLV to be a school where all students are safe and cared for by the adults who are responsible for their education,” she said.

Anderson says she feels vindicated, adding she’s pleased to see the district took action.

“Some of the girls have felt bad reporting,” she said. “It’s just good to see it was actually worth your energy and time.”

In a recent interview with the Press Banner, SLVUSD Superintendent Chris Schiermeyer said when they got the results of the investigation, they decided it was best to come to a “mutual agreement” in which Kahl offered to leave voluntarily.

“You do an investigation, and at the completion of the investigation you have things that are either proven substantiated or unsubstantiated,” he said. “You work with your team to find out what the best resolution would be.”

The investigation into Winkler is still ongoing.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Ashley Keehn confirmed the agency still has multiple “open investigations” into SLVUSD employees, although no charges have been filed.

Drew Penner
Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected]

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