Education

'The system is broken.' Decorated teacher says Merced Union fails to protect victims

A highly decorated veteran teacher blasted Merced Union High School District officials Wednesday in a fiery public speech, saying when she asked an administrator for protection from a coworker she was "mocked" and "belittled."

At the district’s regular school board meeting Wednesday at Golden Valley High in Merced, teacher Annie Delgado did not name the "male colleague" she said touched her inappropriately in March 2017. She also declined to identify the person when asked outside the meeting.

Delgado said she came forward Wednesday only to speak about the administration's handling of her complaint, which she described as a "revictimization" and said she and others were seeking "systemic changes."

She told the board an "independent investigator" concluded the unnamed coworker touched her and made inappropriate comments but when she tried to seek clarification on the steps district leaders were taking to fix the problem, she said she was mocked by an administrator who also raised his voice to her during the meeting.

According to Delgado, the administrator, Deputy Superintendent of Human Services Ralph Calderon, also failed to take action.

Calderon, who attended the meeting, didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

Superintendent Alan Peterson issued a brief statement following Wednesday's meeting.

"The district is committed to ensuring the safety of all students and staff and will be further investigating the claims brought forward tonight and taking steps to address those concerns," Peterson said.

Delgado said, after her meeting with Calderon in January, she took her complaints to the district's senior leaders, including the school board and said she was met with a "deafening silence."

"I feel as if your actions have made you complicit," she said at the meeting. "Who allows this to happen?"

She said the district’s safety policy “appears to be worth no more than the paper it is printed on" and described the system as "broken."

“It would appear that the board received a filtered version of the events in a manner that shifted the blame to the victim in what is beginning to feel like a common practice in this district," she said.

Delgado struggled with tears while describing her efforts to report the allegations and the district's response.

She was backed Wednesday by dozens of teachers, students and classified staff members who also shared stories they described as more evidence of mishandled complaints in a systemically flawed harassment-reporting system.

Several who spoke to the school board said other employees and students haven't spoken out because they fear retribution from the administrators. Delgado said many victims don't come forward due at least in part to a culture of victim shaming and victim blaming.

"I'm still shaking right now because it takes a lot to put your own personal story out there," Delgado said outside the meeting. "But at the end of the day, I know that I did not touch somebody without their consent."

Several members of the audience held signs stating "#StandwithAnnie" and wore colorful T-shirts that read "#MErcedTOO," a play on the #MeToo movement slogan that has emboldened victims of harassment and sexual misconduct to tell their stories.

UC Merced students and others read statements from students of the district's high schools alleging administrators had belittled their complaints of sexual harassment and assault.

Representatives from Valley Crisis Center, an advocacy organization for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, explained the effects that administrative inaction can have on children and adults.

"We hope that (the school board) listens," Delgado said. "That they really listen to the people who are working for them and what impact does it have on you when your employees don't feel safe."

Carol Heldman, an associate professor at Occidental College and a national advocate against sexual harassment, attended the board meeting. She said the Merced Union High School District committed "institutional betrayal" and opened itself up to litigation by failing to address the propagation and reporting of sexual harassment and violence.

School Board Vice President John Medearis requested the board go into closed session at the end of the meeting to discuss the allegations.

Delgado was recognized by the White House in 2016 as of its "10 Champions of Change" for her work helping middle school girls develop leadership skills through the Lift While You Lead Empowerment Program.

Delgado also was named teacher of the year in 2014 by the Merced County Office of Education.

She has been teaching for nearly 20 years.

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