'Passing the trash': 2 women say the teachers who sexually abused them were allowed to continue teaching
Two survivors are sharing their stories for the first time with "Nightline."
— -- Editor’s note: Mr. Gary Gregor was arraigned on Friday May 12th, 2017. He pled not guilty. He was indicted by a Grand Jury filed on April 26, 2017; the Grand Jury indictment charges were three counts of criminal sexual penetration of a minor (child under 13); 5 counts of kidnapping; one count of criminal sexual contact of a minor (unclothed) (child under 13); and four counts of criminal sexual contact of a minor (child under 13).
Chelsea Burkett was a 16-year-old student when one of her teachers targeted her for sexual abuse.
“He first kissed me in this park in L.A.," Chelsea told "Nightline." "It was scary and it felt weird and gross. And, once he started abusing me it was just like accelerated very very quickly.”
The perpetrator was Joseph Koetters, a prominent English teacher at Marlborough, a prestigious all-girls school in Los Angeles.
For Chelsea, now 32, what started as mental manipulation eventually crossed all lines “When I got pregnant, this part of me that I thought I was, this like woman who is sophisticated and like worldly and wise just fell apart,” she said. “So I continue to go through the motions but I was just kind of like dead inside.”
She says her trauma reached a crisis on a winter morning when driving to a friend’s house to work on a school project. “I got like massive cramps in the car and I was really really scared," she said. "By the time we got to her house… I ran straight in the front door straight past her mom and miscarried in the bathroom."
The shame and self-blaming lasted more than a decade, as Chelsea kept her harrowing experiences private. “I became like severely bulimic when I got pregnant and was for over seven years," she said. "I tried to kill myself in college… my sort of working assumption in life was that I wasn't worth anything."
Then a moment came in June 2014 that made her see differently, when another Marlborough alum broke her silence with similar allegations against the same teacher.
In a special edition of ABC News "Nightline," Chelsea and another survivor of alleged abuse by educators, Nallely Hernandez, are stepping out of the shadows to tell their stories publicly for the first time. Both women are now in the midst of civil suits associated with a practice known as "passing the trash."
“Passing the trash” occurs when a teacher accused of sexual misconduct is allowed to leave a school – through a confidentiality, separation agreement or other means - and quietly seek employment at another school without the new employer being alerted to the allegations, according to S.E.S.A.M.E. (Stop Educator Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation), an organization dedicated to the prevention of sexual abuse by school employees.
It wasn’t until years after graduating from Marlborough, that Chelsea found the courage to report her abuse to the school. Fearing the abuse may be continuing unabated, Chelsea came forward to Marlborough in a letter, prompting the school to launch an investigation into Koetters. The investigation found a long-held pattern of sexual misconduct in the 14 years Koetters taught at Marlborough, including him “often using his position of authority to prompt improper discussions and invitations for further contact.”
Chelsea believes her former teacher is another example of what it is to “pass the trash,” now alleging in a civil suit that his was a pattern of bad behavior that began before Marlborough when Koetters taught at another private school called Viewpoint.
Chelsea’s attorney Dave Ring said Koetters “only taught there (at Viewpoint) for one year because he got fired for having a physical altercation with a student. But what happened was, mysteriously enough, Viewpoint gave Mr. Koetters glowing recommendations.”
Chelsea has filed civil cases, not only against Koetters, but also against both schools, Marlborough and Viewpoint.
Attorneys for Koetters, Viewpoint, and Marlborough declined Nightline’s requests for interviews.
Marlborough provided a statement to ABC News saying, it “had no knowledge of Koetters’s sexual abuse of the two former students… until our alumna courageously reported her abuse to the school in 2014.” And that “when the school hired him… Koetters received positive recommendations from his prior employer.” Read Marlborough School's full statement to ABC News HERE.
Viewpoint denied these claims, saying in a statement to ABC News that Koetters was terminated after he “shoved a male student during an altercation… there was no sexual misconduct of any kind that came to the attention of the school,” adding, “while Koetters did obtain a recommendation letter from his department chair, he did so by assuring that teacher that he had disclosed the shoving incident to the school where he was applying for a position.” Read Viewpoint School's full statement to ABC News HERE.
Cases like Chelsea’s and Nallely’s were part of a year-long investigation into “passing the trash” by USA Today reporter Steve Reilly. A December 2010 United States Government Accountability Office report entitled, “K-12 Education: Selected Cases of Public and Private Schools That Hired or Retained Individuals with Histories of Sexual Misconduct,” found that on average one child predator in schools had as many as 73 victims, sometimes without ever being caught. The Department of Education estimates that 4.5 million students are subject to sexual misconduct by a school employee sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade.
Ten years ago, Nallely Hernandez, now 19, was in teacher Gary Gregor’s fourth grade class at Fairview Elementary School in Española, New Mexico. Nallely says Gregor showered her and her friends with gifts. “I remember getting a white T-shirt with purple flowers on it and it said my name on it," she said.
ABC News obtained footage of Nallely as a young girl, struggling to find the right words to tell her dark story of alleged abuse in her elementary school classroom. Footage like this is rarely seen by the public. It is part of an interview Nallely gave during a 2009 police investigation into alleged abuse at her school. In the video, young Nallely says, “I used to always wear my jacket and then never wear skirts, I always used to wear pants because I was afraid.”
Nallely alleges that she was preyed upon by her fourth grade teacher, Gary Gregor. She says those memories still haunt her. Nallely told “Nightline,” “The thing that I remember the most was feeling the warmth of his breath. Next to my face and my ear or his lips touching mine and it just didn't feel right and I didn't want it and I wanted it to end but I was so afraid.”
It turns out that Gregor had a trail of allegations of misconduct following him for years, across two school districts, from state to state, classroom to classroom.
Long before Nallely, Gary Gregor taught fifth grade in Utah, in 1995, the state charging him with sexual abuse of a child. A district judge dismissed the charges citing insufficient proof, but the state board of education issued Gregor a reprimand. He was then hired as a teacher in two other schools in Montana and New Mexico, before becoming a fourth grade teacher in Santa Fe.