It didnt take long for Kevin Patrick Kirkland to single out the 15-year-old girl, a student in his freshman math class at Redlands High School.
The girl had a difficult life — born to a drug-addicted mother and adopted from an orphanage, she suffered serious health problems and learning disabilities, including fetal alcohol syndrome and dyslexia.
She began her freshman year at Redlands High School in August 2013. Socially awkward, the girl had no friends and was bullied relentlessly by her peers. She longed for connection — a place to fit in and someone she could confide in and call a friend.
And Kirkland picked up on that quickly.
“He asked me, Whats wrong? I told him whats wrong, and hes like, Heres my phone number. If youre having a rough time, you can call me, ” the former student, now 20, said in an interview. She is not being named because the Southern California News Group does not identify victims of sexual abuse.
Thus began a relationship that quickly progressed from platonic to intimate. For nearly three years, the two engaged in sexual relations on more than 100 occasions — in Kirklands classroom, in his car off campus, and even at his Rancho Cucamonga home while his wife was away. It finally stopped in May 2016, when the former math teacher and golf coach was arrested and subsequently convicted of sexually abusing four students from June 2014 through May 2016.
For years, top administrators at Redlands High School and Redlands Unified School District allowed the special education teacher to remain in his teaching position despite multiple complaints from students and parents about his questionable conduct with female students, some dating as far back as 2006 or 2007.
Disciplinary action in June 2012 and May 2015 did not deter Kirkland, and he continued preying on vulnerable students until his arrest, according to internal school district documents and court records obtained by the Southern California News Group.
“They were in a position where they were legally responsible for making a report and holding the person accountable for their actions,” said Laura Palumbo, a spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “When inappropriate behavior is being reported, and consistently being reported over time, thats the opportunity to take action and prevent future abuse, and that was an opportunity that was clearly missed here.”
On Aug. 24, the school district agreed to settle three lawsuits with eight former students, six of them victims or alleged victims of Kirkland, for $15.7 million. In August 2016, the school district settled for $6 million a lawsuit filed by one of the victims of former Citrus Valley High School teacher and soccer coach Laura Whitehurst, who bore the child of the former student.
Thus, the school district and its insurer have paid out $21.7 million to settle sex abuse litigation in the past two years.
History of discipline[hhmc]
According to internal school district documents, Kirkland was disciplined in June 2012 and May 2015 for inappropriate conduct involving female students. Both times he was told he would be monitored for 45 days, and, in 2012, was also provided an assistance plan that included 10 directives establishing firm boundaries with his students.
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Nevertheless, Kirkland continued to prey on students.
“I should have taken it as a final opportunity to display professionalism, and I did not,” Kirkland said in a November 2017 deposition, admitting he did not abide by virtually any of the directives given by Sabine Robertson-Phillips, the school districts assistant superintendent of human resources.
Kirklands deposition was among many obtained by the Irvine law firm of Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, which sued the school district on behalf of some of Kirklands victims and other former students claiming to have been sexually abused by two other former Redlands High School teachers, Brian Townsley and theater technician Daniel Bachman.
In a four-page notice of unprofessional conduct dated June 8, 2012, Robertson-Phillips admonished Kirkland. She cited six incidents spanning April 30 through May 17, 2012, in which Kirkland sent inappropriate text messages to his classroom aide, who subsequently reported Kirkland to school administrators.
“Your inappropriate communications with a female student made the student feel uncomfortable in your classroom,” Robertson-Phillips said in the memo. “Further, your inappropriate messages to the student made her feel that if she signaled interest in you that you would have tried to take the relationship further.”
In one text, Kirkland led his aide to believe he wanted her to go to Palm Springs with him while his wife was out of town, and asked the girl for her phone number. In another, he said, “I really miss you when you are not here. You keep me sane!”
Teen had an eerie feeling[hhmc]
In a telephone interview, the former student said she developed an “eerie” feeling about Kirkland the second day of class in January 2012.
“On the first day, when I went into his class, my desk was in the back of classroom, in the corner,” she said. “When I went into class the second day, my desk was next to his. I got a real eerie feeling — like you could feel when someones watching you. I would look up and he was watching me.
“He would suddenly make comments that his wife was out of town. Just telling me personal things. He would compliment me. He would ask me if I had a boyfriend — just very inappropriate things for a teacher to be telling a student.”
The girl subsequently was removed from Kirklands class, but he was allowed to continue teaching. Kirkland supposedly was monitored for 45 days, but there was no follow-up evaluation performed by school or district administrators at the conclusion of that period, as was called for in the disciplinary memo.
Christina Rivera, who was principal of Redlands High at the time and has since retired, said in an October 2017 deposition that a follow-up was unnecessary because there was no evidence that Kirkland had acted inappropriately with students, mainly texting them.
Two years later, in May 2015, a parent complained to Redlands High School Vice Principal Gayle Dockham that her daughter was being bullied by two students, and accused one of those students of being involved in a “special relationship” with Kirkland, who the parent said often took the student off campus for lunch and visited her in the hospital when she was ill.
Dockham instructed the parent to put her allegations in writing, so she wrote a letter and emailed it to her.
The vice principal interviewed Kirkland and another teacher, but not the involved students nor the parent who had complained. Nor did Dockham delve into the parents allegations of a “special relationship” between Kirkland and the one student. That term is oftentimes used in mandated reporter training to describe an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and student.
“I called it a special relationship because I expected that would trigger an investigation by the school administration and that they would discover and stop the romantic or physical relationship,” the parent said in a sworn declaration in March 2017. “I was dismayed to learn of Ms. Dockhams testimony indicating that she never investigated the special relationship. “
During her September 2017 deposition, Dockham said she investigated the parents allegations of Kirkland showing favoritism to students and taking them off campus for lunch and/or ice cream, but did not investigate the special relationship allegations because she felt she had addressed the issues the parent conveyed.
“The two issues that I felt needed to be addressed was the favoritism, because that was in (the parents) eyes affecting her daughter, and then the special relationship that included the off-campus going to lunch,” Dockham said during her deposition. “I zeroed in on the off-campus lunch part.”
Upon receiving the complaint from the parent, Dockham sent an email briefing Rivera in May 2015. She said she had talked to Kirkland, who acknowledged taking two female students off campus to buy six dipped ice cream cones from McDonalds for them and other students. Kirkland, according to Dockham, told her he brought the girls along to help him carry the cones, but agreed he had made a mistake and that he would no longer allow students in his class at lunch time or take them off campus without permission.
Another error in judgment[hhmc]
Knowing of Kirklands prior discipline, Rivera forwarded the email to Sabine Robertson-Phillips, the district official who disciplined Kirkland in 2012.
“He has made another error in judgment,” Rivera said in her email. “Given his history, I am not sure of the next step. It would be easier without his history.”
It was ultimately decided to admonish Kirkland again on his inappropriate conduct and monitor him again for 45 days. He was warned that it would be “absolutely vital that you ensure you establish and maintain proper teacher-student boundaries at all times.”
Rivera informed Kirkland in her memo that the document would be placed in his personnel file after 10 calendar days. But when Redlands police were investigating Kirkland in 2016, Robertson-Phillips told then-Lt. Travis Martinez, now the assistant chief, that the document was not in Kirklands file, nor was the 2012 notice of unprofessional conduct she wrote.
“Triple checked file … nothing but a voluntary resignation letter from being an AP (advanced placement instructor),” Robertson-Phillips said in a May 2016 text message to Martinez.
Yet despite Kirklands record of discipline in 2012 and 2015, police did not launch an investigation into possible violations of Californias mandated reporter law, which requires people in certain occupations to report any “reasonable suspicion” of potential child abuse. Thats because police were unaware of any allegations or evidence to support it at the time, Redlands Police Department spokesman Carl Baker said.
“Travis Martinez contacted the districts personnel director, who reviewed Kirklands personnel file and represented that there was no relevant information in the file indicating prior incidents or complaints. Based on such representations, (Redlands police) did not pursue a warrant for the file,” Baker said in an email.
District severely dropped the ball[hhmc]
Experts who examined Kirklands disciplinary records and sworn declarations from victims and witnesses say school district administrators missed several opportunities to deal with him effectively — whether it be firing him or moving him to a position where he had no contact with students.
Palumbo, of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said theres no doubt Kirkland was grooming his victims.
“I think that is absolutely what we are seeing at play here,” Palumbo said. “It seems to be very clear that there was a pattern of behavior where this individual was really pushing the boundaries of what was appropriate and giving special privileges and attention to young people that were in his care, and seeking to befriend his students to develop greater access to them for what is very clear inappropriate intent.”
She said that, given Kirklands previous discipline in 2012, an “appropriate next step” for school district officials following the 2015 parent complaint would have been to report their suspicions to the appropriate authorities — police and child protective services.
“There seems to be a clear pattern of behavior that is being acknowledged, and there seems to be ambivalence about taking formal action,” Palumbo said.
Aimee Wood, a Philadelphia-based clinical social worker and sex therapist, said “the ball was severely dropped” by Redlands Unified.
“I think a lot of signs went missing and he got away with a lot of inappropriate behavior,” Wood said. “He crossed a lot of boundaries and violated a lot of policies and got away with it for awhile.”
It wasnt until one of Kirklands victims and her father reported Kirkland directly to the police in the spring of 2016 that a criminal investigation was finally launched, which led to Kirklands arrest and his subsequent guilty pleas in April 2017.
Wood said the school district could have nipped the Kirkland problem in the bud in 2006, when the one student complained repeatedly about Kirkland sexually harassing her.
“This student is describing multiple accounts of sexual victimization. The school absolutely should have reported it to the police,” Wood said. “The school is just repeating the worst mistakes possible. I would be fearful if I were any parent with a kid in that school. Theyre not fixing whats broken.”
Policy and school changes[hhmc]
School district spokeswoman MaryRone Shell said in an email that the district “is committed to enhancing our policies and allocating training and resources to protect our students.”
She said every employee in the district will continue to go through mandatory mandated reporter training, and this year the district has brought in a nationally renowned child sexual abuse expert, Diane Cranley, to train all management and all middle school and high school staff members. Additionally, all schools were given copies of Cranleys book, “8 Ways to Create Their Fate: Protecting the Sexual Innocence of Children in Youth-Serving Organizations.”
“She has identified key grooming patterns and behaviors predators often exhibit towards their potential victims. Knowledge and awareness of these warning signs help to define what reasonable suspicion is,” Shell said. “Furthermore, her knowledge is helping the district modify its policies and protocols based on safe and appropriate boundaries between our staff and students.”
Stewart, the attorney who represented Kirklands victims and alleged victims in the litigation, said he applauds any efforts by the school district to improve teacher training and enhance safety at its campuses. But he said the district also must overcome its longstanding culture of hiding sex abuse allegations against teachers and staff and pressuring complaining students not to go to the police.
“That is where they will continue to fail as long as they leave the same administrators in control,” Stewart said. “They can train all they want, but if they do not effectuate change amongst the administrators that are culpable for the abuses to date, then we will continue to see a pattern of abusers and victims coming from Redlands Unified School District.”
School Superintendent Mauricio Arellano has declined repeated requests for interviews and has not spoken publicly on allegations of the cover-up of teacher sex abuse since taking the helm of the district in September 2017, when the allegations first surfaced.