Published Feb. 15, 2023
BY EMMA BROWN
After Carmel High School principal Jon Lyons was dismissed from his position during a special board meeting Feb. 7, the Carmel community, CHS and Carmel Unified School District entered a state of turmoil, exacerbated by the leaking of confidential employee documents that detailed staff-on-staff sexual harassment with both situations raising concerns about the efficacy of CUSD’s investigative and reporting processes for allegations of sexual misconduct.
Due to allegations that Superintendent Ted Knight later described as “multiple serious allegations of mishandling complaints of misconduct,” the school board unanimously voted during the Feb. 7 meeting to dismiss CHS principal Jon Lyons from his position and potentially reassign him to a position yet to be determined.
In an email sent to the Carmel community later that day, Knight indicated that Lyons’ dismissal followed an investigation into a complaint that Lyons had mishandled an issue of student misconduct. Knight noted that the results of the investigation into Lyons’ conduct will be referred to the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department, the Monterey County District Attorney and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
“I can 100% understand why the community would ask, ‘Why would you reassign someone if they’ve done something bad enough to not be the principal anymore?’” Knight told The Sandpiper. “The investigation isn’t done, so we can’t make any decisions [about reassignment] yet.”
The investigation has no set end date, but district-hired officials plan to speak with CHS graduates and students who have made allegations of sexual misconduct in past years.
Attendees at the public portion of the Feb. 7 meeting displayed overwhelming support for Lyons, a majority raising their hands when asked by a commenter to identify those in support of the principal.
“The handling of Mr. Lyons and the circumstances surrounding his leave seem egregious, malicious and nefarious to many,” said one CHS parent during public comment.
Lyons will remain a district employee, but will not return to campus for the remainder of the school year. CHS interim principal Joe Rudnicki will most likely not be able to remain in his current position until June, due restrictions around the amount which retirees can work.
In the coming weeks, CUSD intends to begin their search for a principal for the 2023-24 school year by hiring an outside company which will conduct surveys and have discussions with the community to build the desired profile for the next principal. After collecting community input, a nationwide search to fill the position will be conducted.
On the CHS campus, students have expressed frustration about the circumstances surrounding Lyons’ firing, taking issue with the fact that the former principal was suddenly placed on leave, one week before the conclusion of the first semester.
“People shouldn’t be wrongfully treated like this,” says CHS junior Taylan Dincer. “This would be very humiliating for him and his family, and I just don’t think that’s fair. I don’t care who the person is or what you think of them, it’s not very ethical.”
Despite his dismissal from the principal position and the information disseminated to the public by the district, some students continue to show their support for Lyons.
“I don’t know the full story, but I think that Mr. Lyons should not have been fired,” says sophomore Stella Nuñez. “Whatever happened with how he handled the sexual assault case, I know that he had the immense support of the parents, teachers and students in the district.”
Though CUSD has shared general circumstances surrounding Lyons’ leave with the public, many students remain confused due to a lack of specific information.
“There’s been a lot of confusion because nobody really tells us what’s going on,” says CHS junior Lily Grundy. “We were just left with rumors from other people.”
Among the CHS staff, teachers note unrest and confusion, echoing student concerns about a lack of information.
“I’ve felt more frustrated than I ever have working in this district,” says CHS history teacher Brent Silva, “not so much with decisions that have been made, but because we don’t have clarification on why those decisions have been made.”
Others express concern about how the district’s handling of Lyons’ termination will affect the faculty.
“I’m just hoping that the staff, despite losing our leader, can still pull together through this and support each other despite the negative tone that has come from the top down,” one CHS teacher says.
Countering claims that it was Lyons who mishandled cases of student sexual misconduct, some community members who spoke at the Feb. 7 board meeting alleged that the school district had mishandled cases of staff-on-staff sexual misconduct.
Leaked employee documents detailed accusations that a district employee who worked on the CHS campus allegedly sexually harassed a co-worker and made sexually graphic comments about students and staff. The custodian was subsequently transferred to Carmel River Elementary School, though the school’s principal, Jay Marden, stresses that he was unaware of the complaints made against the employee until last week.
In a Feb. 9 article published by The Monterey Herald, writer Molly Gibbs reported that “Knight adamantly denied that Marden was unaware of the allegations against the employee,” but published a retraction later that evening, noting that “Knight later clarified Marden was aware of the investigation, not the allegations.”
“At no time did the superintendent’s office or the chief of human resources, Craig Chavez, share with me that there was an investigation into the employee or allegations against the employee in any way, shape or form,” Marden says.
Knight informed the CUSD community in a Feb. 8 email that the district would be pursuing a mutual release with the custodian indicated in the leaked documents.
“The employee did initially do something wrong and was punished,” Knight told The Sandpiper. “By all accounts, he has not had one problem all year long, but he has a right to a safe work environment. And with how upset people are, I don’t think I can guarantee his safety.”
The superintendent also noted that the district was not pursuing a mutual release because the employee “did something wrong,” but rather because of the “situation that we find ourselves in after those confidential employee documents were leaked.”
Although the employee is parting ways with CUSD, many parents feel as though the district’s actions are too little, too late.
“They’re trying to say that everything they do is for the safety of their students, but they put a person who made those comments around the most vulnerable in our community,” said a parent of River School students.
According to the superintendent, the employee was the subject of an investigation that involved the service employees’ union, lawyers and outside investigators, and the school board voted to reassign the individual.
Though complaints detailed in the leaked documents were made by staff members, past complaints made by CHS students and graduates indicate that the district’s alleged mishandling of reports may be part of a larger pattern.
Knight noted to the community in a Feb. 8 email that CUSD has been “plagued with a longstanding systemic issue of failure in both the reporting and investigation of employee, student and community complaints involving sexual harassment.”
Yet CHS administrators stress that they take reporting seriously.
“If we mishandled something, we want to know because we don’t want to do it again,” says CHS assistant principal Craig Tuana. “There would never be any intention to mishandle anything because all of us try to take reports as seriously as possible, and if we didn’t handle something the best way, we never want to do that again.”
In March 2021, dozens of CHS students and graduates took to social media sharing allegations of sexual misconduct at the hands of their peers, with many claiming that administrators mishandled their reports. The barrage of accusations was reported on extensively at the time by The Sandpiper.
“I can’t believe that Mr. Lyons would be the only piece of the puzzle in terms of how we’re mishandling these things and not taking reporting seriously across the whole system,” says Colin Matheson, CUSD curriculum, assessment and instruction coordinator, who has worked with the Monterey Rape Crisis Center to educate the student body on consent and healthy relationships. “If these issues are super important, then why wasn’t there a more systemic approach to the problem?”
Since March 2021, students have formed the Our Voices club, which works to inform students about consent and healthy relationships, have led a march around campus to protest sexual misconduct and have helped to conduct annual presentations on consent to classmates. This January, the junior class received presentations on consent, healthy relationships, the spectrum of sexual violence and active bystander training from the Monterey Rape Crisis Center.
But has the district done enough to support students who report allegations of sexual misconduct?
“When I arrived at the district, we immediately started doing training for our administrators,” says Knight, who also serves as CUSD’s Title IX coordinator. “We put into place practices and protocols and updated our website, all of those types of things to make sure that we had the backbone we needed to address these issues.”
On campus, some students still say there’s a lack of followthrough from administrators after they issue a report.
“I’ve heard many students complaining about administrators not taking certain reports seriously,” says CHS junior Tristen Harris, a member of Our Voices.
When asked why CUSD did not open an investigation into potential administrative failures in handling sexual misconduct reports sooner, Knight told The Sandpiper, “I certainly could have, but I was focusing on building a foundation to make sure that we were better prepared for the future. The best thing that I could do coming in was to build a better foundation and a better system.”
Despite some frustrations with how reports of sexual harassment and assault are handled, some students have continued to look into solutions for educating the student body on the importance of consent and spreading awareness about sexual misconduct.
“The culture on campus has definitely improved, but there’s still a lot that needs to change,” says CHS senior Phoebe Varjian, the president of Our Voices. “I really think we need to normalize talking about relationships and talking to people and educating them on consent, healthy relationships and harassment.”
Though there are no concrete plans for district-wide reform for sexual misconduct reporting and investigations, some hope that the current turmoil will ultimately cause positive change.
“I’m hoping that we can come out as a community on the other side of this, and we’ll be prepared to deal with future crises and have a better ability to come together as a community,” says CHS art teacher Steve Russell. “I’m hoping that we’ll come out of this with some actionable change that is better for future students and for the safety of current students, faculty and staff members.”
There will be a regular meeting of the CUSD school board in the Carmel Middle School library Wednesday, Feb. 15, at 5:30 p.m.
Emma Brown, Cassie Gorman and Alicia Krueger originally reported on the surge of sexual misconduct allegations for The Carmel Sandpiper in March 2021.
Chelle Rittermal / February 17, 2023
Thank you. Great report.