Gay SF educator's life upended by false sexual misconduct claim

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday January 17, 2024
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McKinley Elementary School in San Francisco's Castro district was the focus of two false sexual misconduct complaints by the same family against a gay educator and a bisexual educator. Photo: Rick Gerharter
McKinley Elementary School in San Francisco's Castro district was the focus of two false sexual misconduct complaints by the same family against a gay educator and a bisexual educator. Photo: Rick Gerharter

It's the concern that gays in the education profession fear the most. And it's an ugly stereotype: A false allegation of sexual misconduct with a student that can derail careers and lead to tragic consequences. In San Francisco, one gay educator is speaking out after enduring a lengthy investigation that, while ultimately clearing him, has left a lasting impact.

Educator David Hemminger was the subject of a Title IX investigation. Photo: Courtesy David Hemminger  

David Hemminger, 58, who went through the sexual misconduct investigation in 2022, also alleges mistreatment by the San Francisco Unified School District. The district, he claims, dragged its feet on what was supposed to be a 90-day inquiry and, after he was exonerated, forced him to transfer to another school.

To top it all off, a second male educator, who is bisexual, alleges that he was falsely accused of sexual misconduct by the same student and her parents about a year after Hemminger's investigation. In his case, however, the girl's family declined to move forward with the complaint, which they said allegedly occurred off-campus in a city the educator had never been to.

Started in 2022
Back in March 2022, Hemminger, a special education teacher who works with kindergarten through fifth grade students, had been working at McKinley Elementary School at 1025 14th Street in the LGBTQ Castro neighborhood when he received a notice he'd been placed on paid administrative leave. He'd been working for the district for a dozen years.

"I talked to my union rep, who said it was sexual misconduct I was accused of," Hemminger told the Bay Area Reporter. "I wasn't made aware of who this student was. I met with two attorneys — a labor attorney and a criminal defense attorney."

The allegation turned Hemminger's life upside down, he said. He was advised to follow a "detailed plan if I am approached by police" by the defense lawyer, he said.

"She talked to me about wiping my computer clean," Hemminger recalled of his attorney. "I said, 'I don't have child porn on my computer' and she said, 'No, you don't understand. They're evil fuckers who want leverage against you. It doesn't matter that you don't have child porn.' It was really incredibly stressful."

After several weeks, Hemminger got a formal notice of investigation, dated April 4. The San Francisco Unified School District's Office of Equity and Employee Relations opened what is known as a Title IX investigation. It was completed more than four months later.

Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972 requires educational institutions receiving federal aid provide prompt and equitable resolutions in cases of sex discrimination, including allegations of sexual harassment or violence. Schools can use the normal disciplinary process to address these complaints.

"I was completely baffled," Hemminger said. "A little girl I'd worked with in the third grade, who I'd worked with since kindergarten. She has an instructional aide assigned specifically to her, so that person is assigned to her at all times, so I'd only work with her with that professional in the room. I was completely confused."

According to San Francisco Unified School District documents provided to the B.A.R. by Hemminger, on March 14, McKinley's principal Molly Pope received a report Hemminger had sexually assaulted a student. The name of the student, referred to as the complainant, and the nature of her special education needs, were redacted in the report provided to the B.A.R., as was the mother's name, though the document stated the student received language and speech services.

Hemminger said he knows the name of the parent but did not want to disclose it to the B.A.R. because he is "terrified." The B.A.R. could not attempt to seek comment from the parent.

Pope, McKinley's principal at the time, deferred comment to the district, stating, "Staff cannot comment on personnel matters."

The district's 20-page report details the allegations, the people interviewed, and the conclusion that cleared Hemminger.

"The allegations of sexual assault were reported by Complainant's mother after Complainant reported that Respondent [Hemminger] touched her vagina and that the touching happened in his classroom," the document states. "On April 8, 2022, Complainant's mother further alleged that Complainant disclosed she grabbed Respondent's penis and then had to wash her hands because it was stinky."

The investigation included interviews with 10 people, including Hemminger, another student (referred to as student), the complainant, and the complainant's mother. Hemminger steadfastly denied the allegations during the investigation and to this day.

"My room is visible to the staff lounge and copy room," he said. "In my mind, I'm thinking this child must've been assaulted [by someone else] and they're trying to blame me."

Insufficient evidence
The August 19, 2022 final determination letter, signed off by the district, states, "The evidence shows that there were only two occasions where Respondent [Hemminger] and Complainant were potentially alone in the resource room. The information provided in the final investigation report shows that during the spring of 2022, student [redacted] was present for every other interaction in the resource room, and that other adults were routinely present. Student [redacted] did not report any concerns about respondent and did not report any touching. Further, the resource room has windows and is visible from both the street and from the adjacent room which acts as a staff lounge, printer room, and reading room for staff and students. Based on these facts, it is more likely than not that Respondent did not have the access or ability to make sexual contact with Complainant without being witnessed."

Another factor in the district's ultimate determination that there was insufficient evidence to establish a sexual assault was the San Francisco Police Department's response to the report.

"It is notable that Complainant did not report sufficient allegations of abuse when asked by SFPD trained forensic interviewers," the report stated. "It is the Decision-Maker's understanding that SFPD investigation was closed as a result of Complainant not sufficiently alleging abuse when interviewed without her mother present, and criminal charges were not levied against Respondent. The fact that SFPD declined to pursue charges against Respondent after interviewing Complainant is a substantial factor in the Decision-Maker's analysis, including the credibility of the information gathered by the investigator."

SFPD did not return a request for comment by press time.

Stephanie Bealby, employee relations director for the SFUSD, signed the report. Hemminger said she was the Decision-Maker. Bealby deferred comment to the district, stating, "All media inquiries should be directed to the communications office."

Hemminger was relieved at the report's conclusion.

"This was the first time I was able to breathe — I'm not going to be arrested or have to face interrogation by the police," he said.

The representative of the United Educators of San Francisco, the union that represents the educators, told Hemminger that nonetheless "you may have to move because of this," referring to being transferred to another school.

"I said, 'No, I didn't do anything wrong,'" Hemminger said, adding that the labor attorney told him he could no longer represent him because the money the union allocated had been used up. The union representative asked Hemminger if he wanted an attorney again after the revelation that he may have to transfer, and he agreed, but "when they gave me the referral form, it said 'teacher may be relocated as a result of the investigation.' That wasn't in my original referral and I didn't understand why it had been added, so I didn't sign it."

The final school district determination letter does state that "the Decision-Maker feels strongly that Respondent should not have any contact with Complainant."

Hemminger was informed he'd have to be transferred to another school.

"I was furious," he said. "I wrote a letter saying 'I didn't do anything wrong; this is a crime gay men have been accused of historically, forever, and to make me move suggests there's a reason you think I can't be there anymore.' They said it was for the student's comfort. You can't just make up a lie to get someone moved because they're uncomfortable even when I didn't do anything to cause the student to be uncomfortable. ... It reinforces a horrendous stereotype that gay men have faced forever."

The district would only speak with Hemminger's attorney at that point, he said, even though he said he no longer had one.

SFUSD responds
The district issued a brief response when reached for comment for this report.

"We cannot discuss information related to a specific personnel matter," spokesperson Laura Dudnick stated in a January 3 email to the B.A.R. "SFUSD has the right to assign teachers to schools based on legitimate, educational need. Any transfer decision is made in compliance with the United Educators of San Francisco contract and a careful assessment of the circumstances to ensure the success of its students and staff."

The United Educators of San Francisco did not return multiple requests for comment.

Tom Ammiano, a gay former member of the San Francisco Board of Education, including serving as its president in 1992, as well as a former city supervisor and state assemblymember — not to mention once being a teacher himself — told the B.A.R. that "what should be removed is the homophobia that allows this to happen."

"What is the school doing about it?" he asked. "Classic blaming the victim. School district is resting on its laurels. The school board must have discussed this in closed session. It should be reheard. Hoping Mark Sanchez will make the request."

Sanchez, the only LGBTQ member of the elected school board, told the B.A.R. on January 16 that "I spoke to the superintendent [Matt Wayne] on Thursday and he said he was going to get back to me. In general we don't comment on personnel issues — there's legal ramifications about doing so."

The Board of Education has not reviewed the case thus far, Sanchez said.

District flip-flops, Hemminger says
Hemminger said he wanted district officials to speak to him.

"I decided I needed to rally people to get them [district officials] to talk to me," Hemminger said. "Parents sent letters to the district and the board. ... I kept hounding more people to write to them. Eventually, Assistant Superintendent Tamitrice Rice Mitchell said the district is reviewing."

The two met in September 2022.

"I had tissues in my bag because I knew I would cry," Hemminger said. "The first thing she said to me was, 'We want you back at McKinley starting Monday. I burst into tears because I just wanted to go back to my life."

Hemminger was asked not to tell anyone he'd be going back to McKinley.

"I foolishly agreed to it," he said, adding he kept his silence for over two weeks, when he was sent a letter in which he was informed that, in fact, he'd have to be transferred after all.

"How is this legal?" Hemminger said he thought, adding that "the union contract states transfers can't be punitive. ... They ignored me again and started a game where they didn't speak to me."

Lainie Motamedi, who was elected school board president January 9, stated to the B.A.R., "We cannot discuss information related to a specific personnel matter."

Immediate past school board presidents Kevine Boggess and Jenny Lam did not return requests for comment. Neither did Mitchell.

A subsequent letter informed Hemminger his paid leave would end the following day, September 30, and he'd be reporting to Yick Wo Elementary in Russian Hill.

Yick Wo was "a famous Chinese laundromat who sued the city for equal protection — this is a fascinating kind of story," Hemminger said. Indeed, the case Yick Wo vs. Hopkins (1886) established at the United States Supreme Court that laws that are race-neutral on first impression but are applied prejudicially are unconstitutional.

But in spite of the historical parallel he saw, Hemminger was "furious and I didn't know what to do," adding he suffered massive panic attacks and anxiety.

"All I asked for was to be able to get back to my life, to the job I liked," Hemminger said. "I was friends with all my co-workers — I'd worked there eight years. There was nothing on my record — all my reviews were positive. I asked, 'Can we at least arrange a plan for me to return?' They just ignored me."

Hemminger hired an attorney, who wrote a demand letter to the district in which he "brought up the homophobic bias in all this." The district responded that Hemminger's transfer was a "supportive measure for the student," who believes the allegation to be true.

"The attorney was shocked by how they came back," Hemminger said. "I couldn't pursue it anymore; I just kind of had to let it go."

Hemminger was represented by the Knutson Law Office. In a statement, attorney Ryan Knutson said, in part, that "Since Mr. Hemminger was hired by SFUSD as a Special Education Resource Teacher more than a decade ago, he has shown nothing less than exemplary professionalism, compassion for students, and dedication to his duties as a teacher."

"SFUSD has acted without basis against Mr. Hemminger and must rescind Mr. Hemminger's punitive transfer," he continued.

At the end of the school year in 2023, Hemminger attended a graduation ceremony at McKinley. The parent of the complainant was off campus, at 14th and Castro streets, when the two ran into each other.

"She called the school to complain I'd been on campus," Hemminger said. "I was never forbidden from being on campus."

Hemminger alleges that subsequently Mitchell told him "not to return under any capacity, professional or personal, for any reason, until I get permission from her or a site administrator."

Hemminger said that because he lives three blocks away he feels this is burdensome.

"I have the right to move freely and exist," he said. "I didn't do something wrong. This is your [the district's] mess; it's not my responsibility. If someone feels threatened by me without any cause, that's their problem."

Hemminger now works with fifth graders at Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School and Junipero Serra Elementary School.

He also alleges that during the time he was under investigation, the students assigned to him did not receive legally-mandated services from the district.

"We're talking hundreds of hours of services they didn't provide," he said, adding investigations are supposed to be wrapped up within 90 days. His took over four months.

Hemminger had remarks for teachers and parents — "do not assume SFUSD is making a just or student-focused decision."

"Over the course of my leave SFUSD did not serve over 500 hours of legally mandated services to dozens of students," Hemminger continued. "When confronted with the most hateful trope used against queer people, SFUSD declined to fight that false narrative, enabling my accuser to make more false claims. They will take the path of least resistance to protect their power without concern for their students or staff."

Educator Douglas Rich was almost the subject of a similar investigation. Photo: Courtesy Douglas Rich  

Allegation against second educator
Douglas Rich, a 57-year-old bisexual educator at McKinley, told the B.A.R. that in September 2023 he was "called into the principal's office" where he was told that "the same student had gone home and told her parents I touched her in her private parts."

Rich is an educational specialist who also works with multilingual learners. He said he never worked one-on-one with the student.

"I was only in the classroom she was in one time at the beginning of the year teaching the entire class a lesson," he stated.

The allegation was that Rich was at a birthday party with the student and her father in Sunnyvale when the alleged molestation occurred. Rich contended he had never been to a party with them, or ever to Sunnyvale.

When asked when this occurred, Rich stated, "The family knew it was made-up as they hadn't been to a party either."

"They had to interview a bunch of colleagues at my work, and after that story came out, the parents said, 'we'll decide whether or not to take this any further,'" Rich said. "All my colleagues were waiting and waiting and waiting and they [the parents] said, 'OK we're not going to.' All the parents had to do was say, 'I think we're going to take a look at this and take this further' and I'd be in the same situation David was in. The only difference is I don't even work with this child. ... I saw the parents outside laughing like it was a big fucking joke. It was just sad."

Rich told the B.A.R. he feels the district is hypocritical for espousing social justice rhetoric after how Hemminger was treated.

"We work for this district constantly saying 'stand up against everything that's going on here,'" he said.

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