Kirby School, in Santa Cruz, is often ranked as the top private school in the county.
Kirby School, in Santa Cruz, is often ranked as the top private school in the county.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

‘Predatory behavior’: Kirby School investigation concludes former teacher engaged in ‘grooming’ misconduct

An investigation into a former teacher at Kirby School in Santa Cruz reported findings of inappropriate behavior toward students, according to a summary released this week.

Former English teacher Jeff House worked at the school from 2004 to 2015. But his conduct during his time as a teacher came into the spotlight in the past year after he was named in a June 2020 report by his former employer, Presentation High School in San Jose. The report concluded House and other former employees had engaged in sexual misconduct toward students over a span of decades.

After that report was released, Kirby hired an independent investigator to examine whether any misconduct had followed at its own school.

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And in a letter to families this week summarizing the results of that investigation, Kirby Head of School Christy Hutton said the school was “deeply disappointed” to report what the investigator found: A pattern of behavior amounting to grooming students, then making sexual advances toward former students.

House’s alleged conduct at Kirby, “while not criminal, was a clear violation and a breach of the sacred trust the school, our students and the community has in its teachers,” Hutton wrote.

With an enrollment of fewer than 300 students in grades 6-12, Kirby is consistently ranked as Santa Cruz County’s most elite private school. Its prestigious academics come at a cost, with tuition ranging from $32,000 to $44,500 annually.

Kirby’s report also comes at a moment of wider focus on sexual misconduct at county schools.

In the nearby San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District, a flurry of allegations involving high school staff have led to two teachers being placed on paid leave and an inquiry into the conduct of other current or former district employees. Another former SLVUSD teacher is facing charges of child molestation in an ongoing criminal case, and another district employee is facing a lawsuit over decades-old allegations of abuse.

After dozens of allegations of misconduct — some directed towards San Lorenzo Valley High School teachers — were made on...

‘Predatory behavior’

Noting “overwhelming consistencies” in the accounts of witnesses, the investigation cited reports of House singling out female students for special attention and physical affection; communicating with a student “day and night;” forming “inappropriate and codependent relationships” with students, piling pressure on those who tried to pull away; and inviting former students to his home for dinner and making sexual advances.

No evidence was found suggesting House had sexual contact with students at Kirby School while they were enrolled.

“This is predatory behavior and House’s actions toward these female students, during their time in high school, were no less sexual in nature because House held off on making overt sexual advances until after they graduated,” investigator Alezah Trigueros wrote in the report, according to an excerpt.

Sections from the investigator’s report were included in Kirby’s community letter. Hutton declined to release the full report to Lookout, citing concerns around witness and student privacy. Hutton said evidence supports that at least “several” students were subjected to grooming and later, sexual advances, at Kirby, and that his inappropriate behavior appeared to span the time of his employment.

History of allegations

Attempts to reach House for comment were not immediately successful. For 11 years, House taught English, journalism and AP Art History at Kirby, serving as English department chair, and advising the student newspaper, Ink. Before that, from 1999 to 2004, he taught English at Presentation High, a private, all-girls Catholic School in San Jose.

Abuse allegations spanning decades and involving House and a number of former employees at Presentation High surfaced in June 2020, three years after a former student wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post detailing abuse she said she endured from a teacher.

That report found evidence of a similar pattern of behavior from House. He was alleged to have shown special treatment to a female student and engaged in a sexual relationship with a student shortly after graduation.

New policies in place

Hutton, Kirby’s head of school, cited a number of policy changes that have been made or soon will be, to better protect its students. She said the school has brought in outside experts and is confident “significant improvements” have been made in recent years.

Policy changes made in 2015 drew clearer boundaries between staff and students, for instance. A recent change to that policy requires all emails sent from teachers to students after 8 p.m., or on weekends, to copy the school’s academic affairs office.

All Kirby employees must also take a mandatory “staff boundaries” training — now on an annual basis, according to Hutton. And the school is convening a student committee to examine its policies and make it easier for students to raise concerns.

When some of the school’s student-staff boundary policies were in development in 2015, concerns were raised they would stifle mentorship relationships, Hutton said in an email to Lookout.

“After 5 years of living these policies and after listening to the stories of the students who were harmed by their relationship with Mr. House, it has become clear to me that supportive professional relationships with healthy boundaries are far more beneficial to students than what was experienced here in the past,” Hutton said in the email. “I am just terribly sorry that these policy changes weren’t made sooner. I can only hope that by openly sharing our findings, affected Kirby graduates can be afforded an opportunity for healing.”