‘It’s bigger than just us now’: SLV teens behind Instagram account alleging school sex abuse speak up

An Instagram account @santacruzsurvivorsspeak posts the sexual assault claims of students, teens and alumni
An Instagram account @santacruzsurvivorsspeak posts the sexual assault claims of students, teens and alumni of local schools — resulting in a spotlight being shone on the San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Two young women have posted more than 45 stories detailing sexual assault and violence from students and alumni of San Lorenzo Valley High and other schools in Santa Cruz County to an Instagram account. The accusations have resulted in the district putting two teachers on paid leave and investigating two other district employees. The 18-year-olds sat down with Lookout to talk about the account, their motivation and their goals.

For a year, two 18-year-old friends found they kept talking with each other about the same topic: How to speak out about the sexual violence they believed was running rampant among their friends and peers at San Lorenzo Valley High School.

Then, one night in late March, when yet another friend confided in them her story of sexual assault by a fellow student, the two teens decided to stop talking and take action.

They created an Instagram account — @santacruzsurvivorsspeak — describing it as a “safe space” for young people “to have their sexual assault/domestic violence stories heard.”

Since that time, the young women have sparked a revolution of sorts. So far, more than 45 stories from students and alumni of San Lorenzo Valley High and other schools in Santa Cruz County have been uploaded to the account, which declares that direct messages (DMs) “are open for support” and includes a link to a Google form that allows people to submit their stories anonymously.

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

While they started the account primarily to shed light on student-on-student sexual violence claims, it has also been a magnet for misconduct accusations against San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District teachers and staff — allegations Lookout has reported on in our continued coverage of the issue.

Now the district is investigating the allegations against its employees in cooperation with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. Four SLVUSD staff members are under investigation, with two SLV High teachers being placed on paid leave.

On Thursday, the SLVUSD Board of Trustees announced it won’t renew the contract of senior district administrator and former SLV High assistant principal Ned Hearn, as he faces litigation in a decades-old sexual assault claim from his time as a teacher and coach in Solano County. Superintendent Laurie Bruton said in a release after the non-renewal was announced that no claims of sexual assault had been filed against Hearn during his 22-year career with the SLV district.

SLVUSD superintendent Laurie Bruton
(Via slvusd.org)

Bruton — who did not respond to Lookout’s multiple calls and emails for this story — has not yet released details about the investigations into the claims against the two teachers and two district employees. However, in a news release Thursday, she maintained the district is continuing to investigate the misconduct claims.

Until now, the creators of the Instagram page that helped spark these investigations hadn’t spoken publicly. But, after days of trading electronic messages with Lookout, the two 18-year-olds behind the account recently agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity.

For purposes of reader clarity, Lookout is giving them fictitious names: Sarah Davis and Jamie Brown.

The women launched their page on March 26, taking inspiration from similar Instagram accounts that they’d seen popping up on the platform, including one from nearby Los Gatos.

“It was an ongoing conversation, and it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to make this Instagram account, but I’ve been ready to say all of this for so long,” Davis said.

The messages started pouring in instantly.

“The first 72 hours of running this account, it was like an obsession for sure, because we were getting hundreds and hundreds of DMs,” Brown said. “Stories were flooding in, and I wanted to read every single story, and I wanted to share.”

As of this week, the account had more than 2,700 followers, had made more than 45 posts and had received hundreds of stories detailing disturbing sexually violent encounters through Google Forms and DMs. It’s a collection that’s growing each day — that they have yet to read, edit and post.

“At first we were prioritizing the first people to share their stories. We wanted to get all those stories out first, which still applies,” Brown said. But as the account gained traction and with media coverage putting a spotlight on it the girls say their account became inundated with hundreds of submissions, DMs and emails from mostly girls, and some boys, seeking to share their story.

They have since been prioritizing posts involving people who have had multiple accusers. “I want to get those names out there first,” Brown said.

Similar accounts in Santa Cruz County also have surfaced — including one claiming to be run by five SLV High students that has since been taken down.

“I don’t want to say ‘trend,’ because that is kind of cheap, but that’s how social media works,” Davis said. “I think when that started happening, a lot of people felt more empowered to speak up about what problems come along with being a woman and what it means to be sexually assaulted.”

Allegations against teachers

The first allegations that poured in to Davis and Brown’s inboxes came from teens describing sexual violence they’d experienced at the hands of classmates, friends and adults in their private circles. But soon, accusations named teachers and staff members at SLVUSD.

Of the unverified stories publicly posted on their page, seven are claims against school district staff and teachers. With hundreds more submissions to parse through, the true number of accusations submitted against teachers is unclear.

“I was expecting some (accusations against SLV teachers and staff), but not nearly as bad or not nearly as many as it is,” said Davis. “I was really honestly shocked to read those words. They are intense, and they are violent...and the school has known about it, and chosen not to do anything.”

Leann Anderson
Leann Anderson has gone public with her allegations against her former teacher, Eric Kahl, and via Instagram is encouraging others to report similar behavior about SLV High School staff to district officials.
(Provided photo / Instagram screengrab)

On March 30, the teens posted the accusations of 19-year-old Leann Anderson (Anderson’s identity in this story hasn’t been changed as she’s spoken previously to Lookout) against SLV High social sciences teacher Eric Kahl. The night before the post went up, Anderson later told Lookout, she had sent her allegations to SLV Unified and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.

Two days after Anderson’s allegations went live, the school district announced in a letter to parents that Kahl and another SLV High teacher had been put on administrative leave and two other members of school district staff were under investigation. An attorney for Kahl and the other teacher put on leave has denied all allegations against his clients in statements to Lookout.

In the April 1 letter, Bruton sought to assure parents that “SLVUSD takes every report of sexual abuse and/or misconduct seriously.” In another letter, sent days before SLV High students were set to return to campus on April 27, she struck a more personal tone, writing, “We truly regret that their school experience was made difficult by the inappropriate and shameful actions or behaviors of those entrusted to educate and support them.”

Not the first time

The Instagram allegations against the teachers are surfacing amid accusations of sexual misconduct that have surfaced offline at SLVUSD in recent years. In 2019, Michael Henderson, a former SLV High teacher, was arrested on multiple felony charges for allegedly sexually abusing a girl under age 14. His case is ongoing in Santa Cruz Superior Court and his next appearance is set for June 9.

Former San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District teacher Michael Henderson
(Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office)

The tenure of one of the senior-most district administrators, Ned Hearn, has been the latest to make headlines. On Thursday, the district announced it will not renew his contract which is set to expire June 30. This comes as he faces a lawsuit alleging that in the late 90s he repeatedly coerced a 16-year-old into sex while he coached her swim team and taught at her Solano County high school.

The woman who filed the lawsuit, now 40, first made those allegations public in 2017 during the #MeToo movement. After a new California law took effect in January 2020 extending the time period for which people can file civil lawsuits over alleged childhood sexual abuse, the woman filed a lawsuit against the Solano County school district and Hearn in September 2020. Hearn has consistently denied the allegations, including when they first publicly surfaced in 2017 — and in a November legal filing responding to the woman’s complaint.

After her allegations came to light in 2017, Hearn was moved to an administrative role within the district. In July 2020, he was appointed to one of the district’s most senior administrative positions as assistant superintendent of instructional services — earning a base salary of $148,998. Thursday, along with opting to not renew his contract, Bruton announced in a news release that Hearn has been placed on administrative leave “pending the outcome of (the) civil lawsuit.”

“I remember when I read about that,” said Davis referring to when allegations against Hearn first came to light in local media reports in 2017. “He got a better job.”

It remains to be seen how many of the claims posted to the Instagram account can be substantiated, how the cases against Henderson and Hearn will resolve, and what the ultimate result of the investigations into the other district employees will be. But, to Brown and Davis, the volume, scope and breadth of the allegations in the community — along with their own observations stemming from their time at SLV High — show there is a serious problem that SLVUSD needs to address rather than avoid.

The way that the school handles such allegations “continuously with multiple people, multiple stories, multiple accounts that we’ve had — they continuously sweep everything under the rug, whether (the accused is) a staff (member) or student. And that keeps perpetuating the idea that your sexual assault doesn’t matter,” Davis said.

While Bruton did not respond to Lookout’s request for comment on this statement, in a news release Thursday, she wrote: “There has been a misconception that the district is not acting on recent complaints and that is simply not true. The district does act when something is reported.”

“It is disheartening to realize that some students have been made to feel uncomfortable or threatened while at school,” Bruton continued. “We truly regret that any student’s school experience was made difficult by inappropriate actions or behaviors by those entrusted to educate and support them.”

Davis believes one way the district could foster a more supportive and safe environment is by providing better, and earlier, instruction about sexual health and safety.

“I think that consent classes need to be taught, younger, when we’re in middle school. This needs to be something that is put an importance on when we’re from a young age because when we’re sophomores in high school and we’re putting condoms on styrofoam d----, everything is funny and we’re laughing about sex ed,” she said. “The teachers act the same way. It’s not really putting you in that headspace of like, ‘Hey, this is a serious conversation.’”

San Lorenzo Valley high and middle school form the nucleus of a small tight-knit community.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

The magnitude of the fallout of these allegations on the small, tightly knit valley community is not lost on the young women. “This is a really big deal for SLV as a community because everyone knows everyone,” said Brown.

“I grew up with these people. I went to SLV, K through 12 (and) I know all these people. Most of the stories we’re getting — even though we opened it up to Santa Cruz County — really hit close to home, because they’re people I know and they’re people I grew up with and I’ve hung out with,” Brown said.

The girls also point to close community as a causal factor in the problem they see at SLV High.

“Since it is so small and because it’s isolated, you don’t get a lot of people coming in and out,” Davis said. “The same people have been in power running the same middle school, the same (high) school, all the time. So that makes it really hard when something’s going wrong to fix it.”

‘Rooted in love and support’

Davis and Brown say they have received hundreds of messages of thanks and support online. And while only close friends and family know that the two are behind the account, their support has kept them motivated.

“I’ve had family friends talking to me, like, ‘(Sarah), you’re doing something that nobody else would do,’” Davis said. “To hear people show support for this specific subject … was so healing and so empowering.”

“My grandparents and my family are supportive. But they’re just really worried about me, which is understandable, whereas I’m more worried about the community, and I’m more worried about getting justice for these girls,” Brown said.

The impact the account has had in just a few weeks means Davis and Brown are locked in on their cause for now. “It’s a hard thing obviously to do all of this and to read all the stories, but at the end of the day it’s also really beautiful because we are providing a community,” Davis said.

To hear people show support for this specific subject … was so healing and so empowering.

“This account that we’ve created, it’s bigger than just us now,” Brown said.

With investigations underway, Brown and Davis are now using their platform to call on accusers to speak to authorities. “My hope is that we do get enough people reporting (allegations to police),” Davis said. “These are multiple people with the same kind of stories. If you get multiple people reporting on one dude with the same stories, that’s pretty hard to discredit.”

The pair has also considered starting a nonprofit organization to create solutions and support systems for survivors of sexual violence. “I think the Instagram page was a great way to start this conversation and has been giving us a platform that we’ve never had before ... but I don’t think that that is my end goal,” Davis said.

“It’s never been about the abusers — it is of course — but it’s always been about showing support and being there for these people,” Brown said. “I’ve always said our account has always been rooted in love and support. Never in hate and revenge.”

Contributor: Nick Ibarra

Tulsi Kamath has covered sexual assault and intimate partner violence since 2014, launching an award-winning annual series called “Red Zone” to bring attention to spiking campus sexual assaults at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. In 2018, months after the #MeToo movement began, she spoke at the Alaska Press Club Conference on responsibly covering sexual assaults.