By Matthias Gafni
TRACY -- At the tense emergency meeting, Principal Susan Moffitt delivered terrible news to a young mother.
A yard duty monitor overheard the woman's daughter telling a friend that second-grade teacher Darrel Golden touched her inappropriately, and the monitor had notified the principal.
However, the principal didn't offer sympathy. Nor did she report the suspicions of abuse to authorities, as required by law. Instead, according to a $10 million claim filed against Jefferson School District on Dec. 5, Moffitt said she had to protect her teacher's reputation and implied that the mother risked deportation if she reported the abuse to police. The mother, who is undocumented, kept quiet.
The claim, along with internal letters, teacher evaluations, grand jury transcripts and other documents obtained by this newspaper, shows how far the principal went to protect a teacher who was repeatedly reprimanded for inappropriate behavior toward students. More broadly, it illustrates the culture of neglect in which child abuse has persisted in schools around northern California.
It took six years after the first abuse reports for Golden to be fired and prosecuted, after a janitor in November 2012 saw him grab a girl's buttocks and reported it to new school administrators and police.
Golden will be sentenced Friday to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to four felony counts of molestation. The former teacher, who called his young female students "wives," was originally indicted on 33 counts of molestation involving 14 victims after a grand jury convened for five days last summer. The charges ranged from fondling to feeding grapes to students in a sexually suggestive manner.
Moffitt has since been placed on paid administrative leave at her new job as principal of Tenaya Elementary School in the Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District, a small district near Yosemite National Park. A San Joaquin County prosecutor said Moffitt cannot be charged with failure to report child abuse -- a misdemeanor -- because the statute of limitations ran out in 2009.
Moffitt did not return requests for comment, but told grand jurors she received guidance from the district office on how to handle Golden and that she did not have child abuse training before the 2006 incident.
This case is the latest incident documented by this newspaper of school administrators failing to report suspected abuse, which has led to a federal investigation into child abuse reporting and state legislation to strengthen child abuse reporting training and the teacher dismissal process.
The young victim was one of at least five students and their parents who filed claims accusing the Jefferson School District of failing to properly report allegations against Golden, which they say allowed his abuse to continue.
From his first year teaching during the 2005-06 year, Moffitt documented reports of Golden acting inappropriately.
"I said, 'You know, little kids, they're going to want to hug you and things like that. You're a male teacher. It puts you in a really weird place,' " Moffitt testified to a grand jury, saying she instructed him to hug children from his side, not face to face.
By his second year teaching, Golden was accused of touching the little girl and Moffitt came to his protection, according to school documents and the claim against the district. After dissuading the girl's mother from reporting the allegations to police in December 2006, Moffitt met with the frustrated mother again in January 2007, and it did not go any better.
"Ms. Moffitt told (the mother) that she had to protect her teachers and that her daughter must have dreamed this up," according to the claim. The principal also asked if another male in her house could have abused the girl.
The mother, fearing deportation, stayed silent for years. Yet documents show that days after the mother's second meeting with the principal, Moffitt summarized the incident with the student on Golden's Jan. 30, 2007 midyear evaluation, revealing that instead of going to police she conducted her own investigation. That's a huge mistake, experts say, because it violates the law, risks tainting a law enforcement investigation, and places unqualified school personnel in the role of criminal investigators.
"He had an incident before winter break involving a female student in his class," Moffitt wrote. "The child claimed that Mr. Golden touched her private parts and pulled her hair. Neither (Vice Principal Scott) Ferreira nor myself could manipulate the classroom furnishings to simulate the situation/circumstances described by the student. Nor could we corroborate her story while interviewing other students."
She continued: "The child had actually been making advances toward Mr. Golden, touching him though not invited or approved."
Calls and e-mails to Ferreira and the district in Groveland were not returned.
Retired Jefferson Superintendent Ed Quinn, who left the Tracy district in 2009, referred calls to the district office when contacted by phone at his Groveland home.
Current Jefferson Superintendent Jim Bridges, who came to the district after Golden's departure, declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation. However, he said the district has improved child abuse reporting training for all employees and new hires, and the police department is notified if allegations of abuse are made.
Two years after the tense meetings between Moffitt and the girl's mother, a school counselor learned of the girl's earlier allegations and reported them to police.
"We investigated ... and didn't develop enough evidence to make an arrest," said Tracy police Lt. Luis Mejia in a recent phone interview, adding the delay hurt the case.
During the grand jury hearing last July, the first victim, now in middle school, testified how she continued at Traina Elementary wondering why Golden was never punished. "I would see him and I would wonder why they didn't do anything about it."
Court documents and internal records reveal a continuing pattern of inappropriate behavior by the teacher that Moffitt never reported to police.
In 2009, Golden received a warning from his vice principal not to massage students' shoulders. The next year, he received a written warning from Moffitt after he touched the arm of a male student and told him he had "soft skin." She ordered him to refrain from physical contact with students that would be deemed "inappropriate."
In March 2012, Golden danced seductively toward a female student and made inappropriate comments to a female teacher, which caused Moffitt to write a letter of reprimand, again warning the teacher to refrain from inappropriate touching. About a week later, Golden responded to the reprimand, calling it a misunderstanding and he's just a "friendly type person."
He also referred in his response to the young girl who first accused him of abuse in 2006. The girl by then was in the seventh grade and a student in the class that witnessed Golden's seductive dance.
"How many more people has she talked to undermining my reputation? This student's class is dismissed at the end of the day and comes by my room every day without supervision from Miss Venegas. I have concerns that something else will occur," he wrote.
It wasn't until Nov. 28, 2012 -- when custodian Augustin Melchor was fixing a desk in Golden's class and saw him touch a female student inappropriately -- that Golden was taken out of the classroom. The janitor alerted the new principal, who told the superintendent and within hours police were notified.
Dana Eaton, hired as the Jefferson School District superintendent in 2009, said he did not know of Moffitt's 2006 failure to report while he served as her boss and said those allegations were misrepresented to him.
"The hard part was if I knew the entire circumstances of what happened before, I might have done something differently," said Eaton, who now works as Brentwood Union School District superintendent. "That's something I think about a lot."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.