Quick Take:

Two former San Lorenzo Valley High School students are telling Lookout about their experiences with Eric Kahl, one of two veteran teachers placed on paid leave by SLVUSD. The allegations are part of a larger investigation into inappropriate behavior by district staff that is underway by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.

By her own account, what began as a close relationship between Leann Anderson and her San Lorenzo Valley High School history teacher became increasingly inappropriate during her senior year.

Her teacher, Eric Kahl, would confide to her about sex and drug use, compare her to his wife, and began to persistently touch her legs and hair — and brush up against her breasts or butt while they spoke or passed each other in the classroom, she recalls.

“By the end of senior year, I remember turning around and just asking the girls who sat around me — I was like, ‘He is touching me non-stop,’” said Anderson, 19, who graduated in 2019. “And they’re like, ‘Yeah, but it just all seems like an accident.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right, like, accidents happen.’”

About a decade earlier, in 2007-08, Carmen Tellez says she had some uncomfortable experiences with Kahl during her sophomore year at SLV High. They grew close, she recalls, and at some point, she began to routinely sit at Kahl’s desk during class.

“At the time that felt, really, kind of validating or really like being singled out and seen as, you know, special for having that kind of relationship with the teacher,” said Tellez, 28, who graduated from the school in 2010 and is now an attorney in another state.

But Kahl also began to confide in her about his personal life, she recalls — at one point asking her to help remove a file he described as “audio porn” from his work computer, which she did.

In another instance, Kahl shared a story “about having sex with his wife on the riverbank of the San Lorenzo River,” Tellez said. “I don’t remember what my reaction was, but obviously, that’s not a normal thing to talk about with a teacher.”

San Lorenzo Valley High School.
San Lorenzo Valley High School. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Tellez and Anderson are now among at least five current or former students who are alleging that Kahl — who has taught in the social sciences department at SLV High since 1997 — engaged in inappropriate behavior.

The specific allegations gleaned from Lookout’s interviews with Anderson and Tellez come as a wider misconduct investigation is brewing. Kahl is one of two longtime teachers on paid leave while the district investigates allegations raised against at least four employees in recent weeks, many first surfacing on social media.

Responding on Kahl’s behalf on Friday, an attorney representing him reiterated to Lookout that his client did nothing wrong. “At this time, we stand by our previous statement that the allegations are false and Mr. Kahl adamantly denies the claims,” attorney Joseph Cisneros said in an email, responding to a list of specific allegations that Lookout compiled after speaking with Anderson and Tellez.

According to SLVUSD Superintendent Laurie Bruton, an independent investigator is evaluating allegations against Kahl and the second teacher on leave. All the allegations have been shared with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, Bruton said.

Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Ashley Keehn said Friday that investigators are now “working with the school district to determine if any crimes have been committed involving any staff.” So far, no charges have been filed and no arrests have been made, Keehn said.

The swirl of allegations began with the appearance of an Instagram account created to share the stories of survivors of sexual abuse during the last week of March — on the eve of national Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. “SLV for far too long has fostered an environment that … continuously sweeps everything under the rug,” stated a post from the page, explaining why it had been created.

With about 750 students as of last year, SLV High sits in the tiny Santa Cruz Mountains town of Felton. Though relatively small, the high school has been rocked by accusations of misconduct in recent years.

In 2017, during the midst of the #MeToo movement, a woman stepped forward to accuse an SLV High assistant principal of repeatedly coercing her into sex in 1997 when she was 16 and he taught her at Dixon High School in Solano County and coached her swim team. She is now suing the district and the accused administrator, Ned Hearn — a case ongoing in Solano County. A police report was filed at the time, but Hearn never faced charges in the 1990s case. After the allegations surfaced, he was moved out of the assistant principal’s job at SLV High and into another role at the district office, where he remains employed.

In 2019, computer science teacher Michael Henderson was pulled out of class and arrested for allegations of sexually abusing a girl under the age of 14. Henderson pleaded not guilty to the charges, and his case is ongoing in Santa Cruz County Superior Court.

As Anderson, the 2019 SLV High grad sees it, the tight-knit school community might be partially to blame for a culture that lends itself to potential abuse.

“I 100% do think that the school district enables a lot of this behavior with it being such a small school and a small town,” she said. “A lot of these people grew up with each other — were even taught by their co-workers, like your co-worker went from being your teacher to now you guys work together. So a lot of these guys have known each other for 30 odd years.”

Bruton, the district superintendent, and SLV High principal Jeff Calden have not made themselves available for interviews this week. But in an email Wednesday, Bruton said the district “takes all allegations of this nature seriously.”

For Anderson, the idea that Kahl’s behavior was inappropriate didn’t really crystalize until her graduation on June 7, 2019.

That same day, Kahl reached out and began sending her direct messages on Instagram, Anderson said. She responded, beginning an exchange of hundreds of messages leading up to when Anderson said she blocked Kahl earlier this year as she prepared to bring her concerns — and copies of the messages — directly to the district.

Then, late last month, she came across the Instagram page set up to share stories of sexual assault survivors and decided to take her account public, too.

So on March 29, Anderson shared her experience with Kahl in a long email to district officials and the SLV High campus resource officer. And she sent her account to the survivors’ Instagram page, where it was published the next day.

“I was hoping if I put my name on it, that it would help other people to be like, ‘Oh, damn, this one person was able to put her name on there. There’s no shame there. I’m not the only person at this school that thought that was wrong,’” she said.

Since then, Anderson said she has been flooded with dozens of messages from survivors of alleged sexual misconduct involving the school and surrounding community. She said she has forwarded many of those messages along to the school district.

Tellez was not among those to share allegations on social media. She said she first reached out to the school district to share her experience with Kahl on Thursday after reading Lookout’s initial story about the misconduct investigation.

As far as she can remember, Tellez said there was no inappropriate physical contact between them. But when she broke up with a boyfriend, Kahl, told her not to worry about it because she was “hot,” she recalls.

Over the years, her experience in Kahl’s class, she said, has continued to bother her. “I do feel a lot of guilt that I didn’t say anything earlier in the hopes that he wouldn’t have been pervy to other students,” Tellez said.

Anderson said she now hopes to see Kahl removed from the classroom, though she said how the district has handled prior misconduct allegations leaves her with some doubts about any eventual outcome.

Tellez, too, said she thinks Kahl shouldn’t be teaching. “But at a minimum, I just wanted to at least lend credibility to what other people are saying,” Tellez said, “because it seems like this is a pattern.”

Here is the letter San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District officials sent to parents on April 1 about the misconduct investigation at SLV High:

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Follow Nick Ibarra on: Twitter. Ibarra has a track record of reporting that has shone light into almost every corner of Santa Cruz County. Raised in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he came to journalism from...