A father of two former Lincoln High School students says San Diego Unified School District filed false criminal charges against him after he started speaking out against the district for their failures to protect children in schools. He says he wants San Diegans to know the true nature of the people overseeing their children’s education. But he withholds his full name because he and his family have been through a nightmare they don’t wish to relive.
“Call me SD,” he says.
Bullies vs. brothers
On September 28, 2017, SD Harris and T Daniels were at home with their oldest son, a 16-year-old junior at Lincoln High School, who was browsing videos on Snapchat.
Meanwhile, at Lincoln High School, the bell rang and their younger son, a 15-year-old honor roll student, walked down the hallways of education, eager to learn about the world and his place in it. But he didn’t make it to his next class. He was jumped by a group of bullies, one of whom stood by and recorded the attack. The video was uploaded to the internet and went viral.
As the eldest son browsed the video sharing site at home, he saw the fight. Then he noticed the face of the victim — it was his younger brother. Terrified, he ran to tell his parents.
Harris and Daniels rushed down Imperial Avenue to Lincoln. On their way, they tried calling the office repeatedly. Nobody answered. Nobody called back. When they arrived to evac their younger son, the office staff was clueless about the fight.
Harris and Daniels say the video shows security guards standing idly by during the attack. The principal was nowhere to be found. They were assured he would call them. He never did.
Over the next couple of months, both brothers were repeatedly harassed and threatened by the same group of bullies.
Builders and bulldozers
In the past, Lincoln staff members have suffered the wrath of principal Jose Soto Ramos and vice principal Myeshia Whigham when they spoke out about problems that needed to be solved. A few have joined Harris and Daniels to expose what has been happening at the school, but they ask for anonymity. “Whigham and Soto don’t do anything without each other. It’s really bizarre,” says one. Another says that while Whigham projects strict authority, Soto lets people do whatever they want, except speak out about problems at Lincoln.
They all agree that for the better part of a year, the two top Lincoln administrators allowed a gang of bullies to rampage across campus, seemingly with impunity. Multiple victims were left in their wake. Incident after incident followed the attack on Harris’ and Daniel’s son. Some Lincoln insiders say the main bully was especially hostile toward the two brothers while enjoying special protection from Whigham.
On December 11, Harris and Daniels arrived to pick up their children as school let out. Whigham was present and witnessed the main bully make death threats against the family and vandalize their car. Instead of disciplining the assailant, she had stay-away orders issued to the parents and gave suspensions to the brothers.
Daniels explains, “The pattern is, they punish the victims and let the perpetrators go free.”
She adds, “Whigham favored the main bully and always protected him. During football games, she would ride around with him on her cart.”
(Staff and students together on carts has become symbolic of Lincoln’s problems. A male security guard was known for riding around with female students in his cart. In February, Earnie Dorn Campbell came under investigation for making sexual advances toward underage girls. On August 22, the city attorney charged him with two counts of molestation. More recently, on October 10, a male teacher at Lincoln was placed on leave after allegations of inappropriate behavior with female students were made.)
For Daniels’ children, the worst was yet to come.
On January 3, 2018, the younger son walked into the school office to report that the main bully spit on his head. Instead of getting sympathy, Daniels says, he was told Whigham planned to expel him and his brother.
The next day, he walked into the locker room to get ready for P.E. Ten students wearing gloves came out of the shadows and approached him. The doors were all locked. Again, the onslaught was recorded and posted online, where it went viral. Again, nobody from the school informed the parents. No police report was filed. No medical attention was given. The parents found out about the attack through Snapchat. Harris and Daniels rushed to school, trying to call the office but got no answer. They found their son with bruises all over his head and neck.
After Daniels reported Whigham’s cover-ups to the school district office that day, the bullies started making online death threats against her kids while brandishing guns in their social media profile pictures. “My younger child was spit at on a Wednesday, got jumped on a Thursday, and on Friday Eileen Sofa said, ‘Let’s meet. We got to talk to Soto,’” says Daniels.
Sofa was featured in media reports during the last school year — including a March 28, 2018 Reader story by H.G. Reza — about her non-verbal, severely disabled son, who she believes was sodomized in a Lincoln restroom. She spoke out against Lincoln staff, including Whigham, for covering up the assault. (Whigham documented the incident as an obscene act instead of a sexual assault.)
As detailed in the Reader story, the incident was covered up by the student’s teacher, school and district administrators, school police, and the San Diego Police Department. Sofa wrote to a friend, “At the end of the day, their secret was more important than my son’s well-being.” (Sofa passed away April 14, 2018.)
On January 5, 2018, Daniels and Sofa went to see Principal Soto Ramos. “Right when we walked in,” recalls Daniels, “the main bully was there, taunting us like he had free rein to do whatever he wanted. When we questioned Soto about it he just brushed it off like it was nothing.” The trauma her kids were suffering was also brushed off, she says.
On January 10, the brothers were threatened again. Before Harris arrived to pick them up, the oldest son got a broken arm when a teacher slammed a door on it. That was the last straw. Harris withdrew his kids from Lincoln, and they never returned.
They gave a knife to the attacker
Thirteen days later, a fight broke out on campus between two special ed students. One took out a knife and stabbed the other in the neck. Voice of San Diego reported the victim stumbled from classroom to classroom dripping blood in each room, and when a teacher’s aide ran to the office to get help, she found it locked with nobody in sight. A source says the office doors were not supposed to be locked just after 2 pm and administrators were supposed to be available.
Another says that two weeks before the stabbing, the perpetrator was caught with a knife at school, but the school district forced administrators to return it to him.
Trickle down cronyism
Led by President Kevin Beiser, the San Diego Unified school board has become infamous for its unanimous votes, a solid block of five trustees who stick together on the most controversial issues, even when a majority of their constituents are opposed to their decisions.
Earlier in 2018, a community survey revealed 60 percent of their constituents wanted to obtain more local representation and accountability from board members by having sub-district elections. The board chose not to act on their wishes, and the district is now being sued for it.
The board also ignored the 77 percent who wanted to limit a trustee’s time in office to eight years or less. Instead they sided with the 12 percent who wanted to give each trustee 12 years in office.
Elizabeth Gekakis spent the last 10 years of her 28-year teaching career working at Lincoln. She believes the cronyism within the district has produced inexperienced administrators not up to the task of running schools such as Lincoln.
“I have been on a few interview panels within the district,” she says, “and from my experience they are not democratic, when it comes to a final decision about who to hire. They could use more safeguards to ensure that the input of the constituents is followed. We feel the impact of inexperience in our schools.”
In the case of Cindy Marten, she says it’s not helpful or appropriate to hire someone with no high school experience to be the superintendent of a district with both high schools and elementary schools. She looks back on 2012 as Lincoln’s turning point for the worse, when a new principal took over.
The four-small-schools model Lincoln’s new campus was designed around was eliminated. No more Center for Social Justice, Center for the Arts, Center for Science and Engineering, or Center for Public Safety. Just one large school.
She says there was an immediate drop in student enrollment and a spike in teacher turnover.
This past year, Gekakis wrote letter after letter to board members to warn them of the hostile work environment that has continued under Lincoln’s current administration. Stress leaves and teacher turnovers are very high in special education.
On April 24, 2018, Gekakis spoke to the school board about the “four non re-elects, which are supposed to be rare.” In a letter to the board she wrote, “I have never heard of so many teachers being herded out of one department in such a short period of time.”
Despite a shortage of special education teachers, Lincoln has been issuing new teachers non-reelects before they reach their two-year tenure. When that happens, the teacher can never be hired by any San Diego Unified district school again. It is among the harshest of punishments a new teacher can be given.
There is little accountability for the administrator who gives it, and no defense for the teacher who gets it. It can be given for any reason. Gekakis knew each of the teachers non-reelected and says they did not deserve to be fired, and that the actions were either retaliatory, frivolous, or done to show “who’s boss.”
One former special education teacher planned to leave at the end of the ‘16-17 school year and was encouraged by other staff to do so because of the hostility of Whigham, who oversees special education. That teacher had initiated grievance proceedings against Lincoln’s administration at the end of the year. But Whigham, sources close to the school say, put on a nice smile and promised the staff member nice things to stay another year. After being convinced to stay, Whigham turned around and non-reelected the person, a move that could have been career-ending.
One nightmare is one too many
There are staff who do their best for their students, and there are students who try and succeed, but for many parents and staff, Lincoln became the place where their worst nightmare came true. For each of them, that nightmare is one too many.
In February 2016, school police officer Bashir Abdi was attacked at Lincoln by a mob of students and was hospitalized. He was knocked unconscious at one point and suffered a concussion. Though no students were expelled, three pleaded guilty to criminal charges.
That same month, a Lincoln staff member was put on leave when a mother discovered inappropriate text messages from him on her daughter’s cell phone. According to a lawsuit San Diego Unified settled for $400,000, soccer coach Said Omar Cajica was able to groom the female student in the fall of 2015, tutor her, make her his assistant for the soccer team, and meet her off-campus. The claim states he gave her alcohol and sexually assaulted her. He has not been criminally prosecuted.
The next school year, a student attacked a substitute teacher but was not expelled. Voice of San Diego reported the student later tried to stab a classmate. That 2016-2017 school year was the year that started under the cloud of the sexual assault of Eileen Sofa’s son. The higher-functioning perpetrator was allowed to go into the restroom with him unsupervised.
Four days before she died, Sofa spoke to Mike Slater on his San Diego radio show. She said that at the time of the incident, her son’s teacher told her he was in the bathroom with another student with their pants down, but nothing happened. She didn’t hear the truth about what the teacher’s assistant saw or what the perpetrator confessed to until a year later.
She also said the teacher gave the perpetrator the bathroom keys and allowed him to take her son to the restroom. A source from Lincoln says that was a regular occurrence.
The teacher, Jamie Guevarra, spoke at the April 24 board meeting and said the media reports about her were lies, but she didn’t offer any specific clarification. She didn’t respond to my request for comment.
In some cases, the effects of poor administration have been lethal, and in others they have been life-shattering.
Former Lincoln special ed teacher Nathan Page was featured with Eileen Sofa in the March 28, 2018 Reader. For over a year, he tried unsuccessfully to get Lincoln administration to stop covering up the restroom assault and take better care of special education students.
Lincoln staff describe how vicious Whigham was with Page when he spoke out against her failure to protect their students. He went to the police, but they disregarded his pleas. He went to the media, but it wasn’t until after he committed suicide in September 2017 that the media began reporting on the sexual assault, starting the process of granting his final wish — justice for the victim. But the perpetrator still has not been charged with a crime.
Former NBC 7 reporter Wendy Fry exposed a rant Principal Soto Ramos delivered in April 2018 at a Lincoln staff meeting. He lashed out at staff who leaked the information that exposed the cover-up, and he accused the media of spreading lies. Someone from Lincoln responded by leaking an audio recording of his speech.
Soto Ramos spoke to his staff about how he defended some of them even though they were not committed and not willing to work, and he expected them to return the favor and not go to the media behind his back. And he threatened his staff. “I can definitely throw people under the bus, because I am privy to a lot of information.”
The Lincoln principal said the report that Sofa’s son was sexually assaulted was not true. He said the truth was that “both students were caught in the restroom with their pants down,” implying the victim shared blame with the perpetrator. He added the severely disabled student “was non-verbal and could not express what had happened.”
Before she died, Sofa stated that when she asked her son what the boy did to him, he looked away from her and pointed to his rectal area. The family’s attorney, Marlea Dell’Anno, says Soto Ramos’s claim contradicts a staff member’s eyewitness testimony and two confessions from the perpetrator. The lawsuit filed on behalf of the victim alleges the staff member walked into the restroom and saw the perpetrator was erect and making flesh to flesh contact behind the victim. When the staff member’s presence became known, the higher functioning perpetrator jumped away but the severely disabled victim remained standing in the same place.
“Mr. Soto is like a corrupt politician who is all about covering up misconduct and maligning the reputation of anyone, living or dead, who tries to do the right thing,” says Dell’Anno.
Soto Ramos told his staff the January stabbing victim’s injury was not life threatening, and that he returned to school the next day. However, eyewitnesses at a July 16 court hearing say the perpetrator pleaded guilty to attempted murder. And a source from Lincoln says the victim returned to school weeks later, not the next day. Soto reportedly misinformed staff on other items as well.
The attempt to control damage has continued this school year. On September 24, 2018, a brawl broke out on campus. Video shows at least ten students involved. Soto Ramos whitewashed the incident in an email to staff, mentioning only that two students who had trouble getting along were involved in an altercation.
“He’s okay with not being transparent with us and putting us in danger,” says a Lincoln employee.
A concerned father
SD Harris removed his kids from Lincoln in January 2018, but his battle was far from over. He wanted answers and he wanted accountability. The main bully who harassed his kids was finally expelled in March after attacking one of Whigham’s fellow vice principals. Some of the other bullies went to jail.
But Harris remains outraged that the school officials who allowed the bullies’ “reign of terror” for so long still have their jobs.
Soon after leaving Lincoln, Harris, and Daniels found out the school was marking their sons absent and giving them Fs, despite their new arrangement for a home study program. They complained, but it didn’t stop. Complaints to Lincoln administration, school police, and the school district all seemed futile. “They were all in cahoots, covering it up from the jump,” Harris says.
They started going to board meetings to complain.
His quest became theirs
At the May 29, 2018 board meeting, most of the audience gave a standing ovation when Harris, along with Jacqueline Elijah, spoke out against the school district’s failure to protect children. Harris gave an impassioned plea against the bully administration at Lincoln and the inaction of the school district and board, calling out Kevin Beiser and Cindy Marten by name.
As with Fleece, the black man in Herman Melville’s classic whale hunt story who preached a sermon to the sharks surrounding his ship, Harris felt his words were falling on deaf ears.
“Are you there?” he asked the board. “You keep talking and talking, but what are you gonna do?”
But others heard what he had to say, and his quest to protect children from the Moby Dick of systemic corruption became theirs.
The next day, Beiser texted Harris asking who his lawyer was. The day after that, Lynn Ryan of the district’s Quality Assurance Office had Harris and Daniels come in to the office to clarify some details about their complaints. The following day, June 1, Daniels got a call from the school district, stating their application for home instruction for their younger son was denied. She found it odd that after waiting so long ,all these things were happening right after Harris spoke out at the board meeting and after he began building a rapport with other school district critics. They would soon find out stranger things were at work.
A sneaky little wolf
May 31 was the fateful day Harris and Daniels went to the Quality Assurance Office at school district headquarters for an appointment with Lynn Ryan, the district’s Title IX coordinator and Uniform Complaint Compliance Officer.
They were surprised by the presence of an attorney named Jose Gonzalez, who said the district’s legal office asked him to be there to investigate their complaint. “They’ve been telling us they’ve been investigating for months, and now all of a sudden you pop up here?” Harris said to him.
It was a red flag for Daniels as well. “I had a gut feeling I had to record this. As soon as he mentioned he was a lawyer, I thought, ‘We have to protect ourselves.”’ She began an audio recording with her phone.
“We’re talking to a wall. You don’t have no compassion and none of you feels,” Harris said.
When Gonzalez smirked about their sons’ injuries, Harris asked him what was funny and called him a “sneaky little wolf.” Tempers rose, yelling and cursing started, and the meeting was ended.
The only definitive action San Diego Unified took in response to his complaints was filing a petition for a workplace violence restraining order for SD Harris on June 5. Then they filed felony criminal charges against him on June 18.
Five district employees signed affidavits accusing Harris of threatening their lives at the May 31 meeting. Unaware of the accusations, Harris and Daniels attended a civil trial on June 13 for the lawsuit former San Diego Unified Investigator Michael Gurrieri filed against the district. (He alleges he was fired because he refused to ignore incidents of abuse and wouldn’t comply with the district’s request to bury them.)
Harris sympathizes with Gurrieri, as he feels his own complaints have been buried and his own kids were thrown to the wolves. During Trustee Marten’s testimony, Harris noticed her lean over and whisper something to the judge.
The court reporter’s transcripts reveal Judge Kenneth Medel stating, “There is an African-American gentleman and an African-American lady in our audience. [Marten] told me there is an active restraining order... she feels very threatened.”
A short while later the judge asked, “Is there a[n] [SD] Harris in the courtroom?”
According to court transcripts Harris responded, “What have I done? I’m here.”
The judge said he was informed of a restraining order against him. “Not to my knowledge,” he replied.
Daniels spoke out, “She’s mad because of the board meeting. We spoke up against her.”
Harris added, “Cindy Marten’s been covering up for years. She should be walking away in cuffs, playing with kids like that.” He did not realize at the time the significance of his statement about walking away in cuffs.
Judge Medel asked Carmina Duran, executive director of the district’s Quality Assurance Office, to explain what was going on. (She had just gone to the witness stand.) She said Harris threatened to assassinate everyone in her office and that she was uncomfortable with him sitting in the courtroom.
Harris spoke out, “I never met you a day in my life.” Medel gave Harris the floor and he continued, “If I did all that, I would have the whole SWAT team come. That’s crazy [for] a parent to say some silly stuff like that.”
Five days later (June 18), the school district sent school police officer Chris Padilla to press criminal charges against Harris for the alleged assassination comment. Along with Deputy DA Vanessa DuVall, he filed a declaration in support of arrest warrant. Judge David Oberholtzer signed off.
Nobody from the school district, DA’s office, or sheriff’s department informed Harris or his attorney about the arrest warrant. On June 26, Harris marched into the Hall of Justice with a pile of documents in his hands, his attorney Marlea Dell’Anno at his side, and a squad of supporters at his back for his hearing on the restraining order. He was happy to have his day in court, and ready to defend himself against accusations of threats he says he never made.
But he didn’t make it to his courtroom that day.
He got off the elevator at the fifth floor, turned the corner, and as he walked through the hallway of justice, he was surrounded by five deputy sheriffs.
“Are you [SD] Harris?” he heard. “We have a warrant for your arrest.”
He immediately put his hands up. He says he was escorted into a nearby room and handcuffed.
Dell’Anno expressed outrage at this “sneak attack,” as Harris describes it. “You can’t do this to my client!” she said, stepping two feet away from them.
They responded by detaining her and seizing her briefcase. Harris says he stayed calm. “I’m not gonna do nothing. I know it’s wrong. It’s fake. But take me where you’re going to take me,” he says he told the deputies. He was done.
When asked why Dell’Anno was not informed of the warrant, why she was not given an opportunity to arrange surrender, and why Harris was arrested just before his hearing instead of after it or at another time, a sheriff’s department spokesperson did not explain, except to say the courthouse is a safe place for an arrest.
Before she was allowed back in the courthouse, Dell’Anno asked one of the top deputies if someone from the school district contacted them to arrange for Harris to be arrested on his way to court. She says he responded yes.
Harris was taken to jail, where he stayed for two days.
Daniels had an audio recording of the entire May 31 meeting when the death threats were allegedly made. They planned to use it to defend Harris against the restraining order petition, but now needed it to get him out of jail.
Dell’Anno brought the evidence to the DA’s office and the information went all the way up to DA Summer Stephan.
The next day Harris pleaded not guilty to making a felony criminal threat. In light of the evidence that was provided, bail was dropped and Judge Maureen Hallahan released Harris on his own recognizance.
The DA filed a motion to dismiss the criminal charges against Harris. Judge Timothy Walsh granted it August 8.
Harris still had to fight the civil restraining order.
After their attempt to send Harris to prison didn’t work, the school district offered to drop the restraining order against him if he agreed to sign an injunction that would have prevented him from speaking out at board meetings and going near any San Diego Unified property, including every public school in San Diego, for three years. He refused to be bullied into submission.
Harris and Daniels’ friend Judy Neufeld-Fernandez, a child advocate who has helped them live through their nightmare, says the district tried to paint SD as a thug. “He’s just a big teddy bear who won’t back down,” she says. “He’s all heart.”
On September 28, 2018, Judge Katherine Bacal ruled against the school district and in favor of Harris. “The petitioners have not met, by clear and convincing evidence, that there was a credible threat of violence.”
Judge Bacal cited cell phone recordings of the May 29, 2018 school board meeting which showed that Harris made no threats against school district employees. And she pointed out the “numerous conflicts in the testimony” of school district employees as part of the reason for her finding.“Animation, and even anger, is not enough for there to be a credible threat of violence.”
Harris was on crutches that day. As he hobbled out of the courtroom, the disposition on his face was noticeably different. He said, “I got a fractured ankle. But I don’t feel pain no more.”
Will the Lincoln nightmare ever end?
Some wonder whether filing their complaints, talking to the media, and fighting for the kids has had any results. “Nathan Page is still dead, and [the administration] are still working there,” says one concerned party.
The sprawling 24-acre Lincoln High campus, stretching nearly a half mile along Imperial Avenue just east of Interstate 805, is the most expensive school facility San Diego Unified ever built — $129 million — but it has presented its most challenging problems. Some blame its huge size — a capacity of 2700 students. Education advocate and attorney John Stump says, “Lincoln was designed to fail. Bigger is not better in education.”
Solutions proposed in the past have included turning it into a charter school or splitting the campus and letting multiple schools share it.
Stump introduced a proposal to the San Diego city council this past summer to break up the San Diego Unified school district into separate elementary and high school districts and to reduce the number of people each board member represents. They ignored him.
Harris says the entire school board and Lincoln administration needs to be voted out or fired.
District employees and officials, including Cindy Marten, Kevin Beiser, Jose Soto Ramos, and Myeshia Whigham, did not respond to a request for comment.
Harris and Daniels are happy to be finished with Lincoln. The two brothers were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, but are in a better place at a private school. Daniels says, “They’re now in a welcoming and nurturing environment. They really keep their eyes on those kids and make sure nothing happens to them.”
Harris adds, “And they email you every step of the way to tell you what’s going on with your kids. They don’t wait until your kids are failing to call you.”
Daniels believes the help turning things in a better direction came from above. “Only God could have brought us the help we received from so many different people, many complete strangers, people we would have never expected to help us.”
She sees their experience summed up in Psalm 37. “Do not fret when people carry out their wicked schemes. He will make your vindication like the noonday sun.”