upper waypoint

'They Knew': Legal Battle Over a Los Gatos Elementary School's Failure to Prevent Sexual Abuse Could Go to Trial

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

A man wearing glasses, a face mask and a dark jumpsuit is seated indoors.
Joseph Brian Houg during a sentencing hearing at Santa Clara County Superior Court in San José on Nov. 29, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Joseph Brian Houg, a longtime youth theater director and elementary school teacher in Los Gatos, was sentenced to 35 years in prison in December for sexually abusing 10 boys over a period of 17 years.

Now, the legal battle over whether the school where he worked for 21 years could have prevented the abuse — and failed to do so — could go to court this fall.

In a written statement to KQED, Los Gatos Union Superintendent Paul Johnson has said the school district is “shocked by the criminal actions of this former teacher.”

Johnson also said there is no evidence that the district was aware of Houg’s criminal conduct, or that anyone in the district “protected or covered for him in any manner.”

Sponsored

But in a lawsuit currently set to go to trial in November, two of Houg’s victims allege school administrators failed to adequately supervise Houg or address complaints about his behavior.

And records obtained by KQED show that Blossom Hill Elementary School Principal Lisa Reynolds received at least four reports from parents describing inappropriate behavior by Houg between 2009 and 2014, including two concerns about him inappropriately touching two boys, and bullying a third student.

While the records show that Houg was instructed to be “aware and mindful” that he refrain from “any physical contact with any student at any time,” there is no indication that he was disciplined.

In addition, the attorney representing the victims, Mark Boskovich, has presented testimony that a number of other complaints to school officials about Houg bullying, harassing and humiliating students — some going as far back as his second year teaching — were never documented by the school. In some of these cases the student was transferred to another class at the parents’ request.

Jan Blair-Olsen, who testified in a deposition for the lawsuit, said her son remained lost and traumatized for years after he was bullied by Houg beginning in 2003.

“None of it should ever happen by a teacher,” Blair-Olsen said. “The school district knew this and let him stay there, let him have access to children. They knew it. They knew it. They knew it.”

Complaints about touching

The first documented complaints about Houg touching students inappropriately — some of which later led to his conviction on molestation charges — date to 2009, although they may not have come to light until several years later.

In 2013, a parent, whose name is redacted, emailed the current Blossom Hill Elementary School principal, Lisa Reynolds, asking for details on the process for filing formal complaints with the district about Houg’s “behavior, teaching style, and how he talks to our children.”

In an email obtained by KQED in a public records request, the parent describes to Reynolds an incident occurring in 2009, in which Houg asked the parent’s son and a friend to “come to his classroom during lunch to undress down to their underwear to try on a ‘costume’ for the play.”

Records provided to KQED do not show how Reynolds responded, or whether the incident was documented by the school or a formal complaint was ever filed.

Reynolds has not responded to interview requests from KQED.

An additional parent who spoke with KQED, who asked not to be identified to protect the identity of her son, said her complaint was not included in the records shared with KQED by the school district.

But she said she reported a similar incident to Reynolds wherein Houg asked her son to try on a bathing suit for the play in his classroom during the 2009–2010 school year.

In 2014, records obtained by KQED show, another two sets of parents complained to Reynolds that Houg was touching their sons inappropriately.

According to meeting summary notes from the school, Marla Rodriguez, then assistant superintendent for the district, attended a meeting with Houg and two parents on Nov. 12 , 2014, to go over concerns about “inappropriate physical contact with their son.”

The parent said she had witnessed Houg giving her son a hug in the hallway where he “spun him around, pulled him close, and rubbed his tummy” before Houg “tapped him on both the back and behind.”

The son reportedly said, “That’s what Mr. Houg does,” after witnessing his father pat his mother on the behind. His sister reported Houg touched only boys.

In the notes, the father said he was not “accusing” the teacher of anything, and the parents appreciated Houg “as a professional and all that you have done to support our son.”

The conference summary does not indicate Houg was reprimanded or disciplined for his behavior. He was instructed to “[b]e aware and mindful that you do not have any physical contact with any student at any time, including, but not limited to, the school day and during play rehearsals/performances.”

In another meeting nine days later, involving a different set of parents, Houg received a similar instruction. In that meeting, the parents described how Houg would place his hand on their son’s shoulder and back, and rub his chest.

According to the meeting summary notes, the parent recounted telling her son that no one is ever allowed to touch him. The son responded, “That’s just how Mr. Houg is.”

The boy also shared that during the play, Houg would appear in the changing room while he and the other boys changed. The boys started wearing shorts “so changing wouldn’t be a big deal.”

“During the [parent-teacher] conference, [the parent] noted that [her son] appeared to be almost in a trance, listening to [Houg’s] every word. She said that she had never seen her son behave that way before,” the notes from the meeting read.

Houg was again directed to be mindful about physical contact with students, and in this meeting also instructed “during the play you are diligent about having the dressing rooms supervised by parents and that you do not need to enter or supervise the dressing room area.”

Houg was not arrested or charged with any crime until 2020, when he asked a boy to undress during a virtual Zoom meeting. A mandatory reporter notified police, and additional victims came forward to describe abuse.

Those victims include the boy who was asked to undress in Houg’s classroom in 2009, according to Boskovich. Boskovich said Reynolds did not notify law enforcement or child protective services after the earlier complaints.

Houg pleaded no contest to charges involving 10 boys in 2021.

What the experts see

KQED spoke with six experts in preventing childhood sexual abuse for this story. They said the parents’ concerns should have been red flags, and several said the school should have notified other agencies to investigate the claims.

Psychologist Lisa Fontes, a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who specializes in intimate partner and child abuse, said the complaints made to Blossom Hill Elementary around touching should not have been handled internally by the school. Instead, she said, schools should notify outside agencies to conduct an investigation.

“Not the parent. Not the school,” Fontes said. “Think of how much power an elementary school teacher has over a child. A child is not apt to resist touch, is not apt to question [the teacher], even if they make them uncomfortable.”

Complaints of bullying

Even before complaints began about inappropriate touching of students, other parents had complained about Houg’s teaching style. They alleged that he bullied, humiliated and harassed students, in some cases demanding their child be transferred away from his classroom.

“Once the school is on notice that there is potential abuse by a teacher … because that’s what [bullying] is, it’s emotional abuse … they have a very important duty to remedy it,” said Nicholas Carlisle, CEO of Power of Zero, an organization dedicated to helping schools prevent bullying. “That generally entails a series of escalating steps against the teacher. And if they fail to take heed of that, most schools would be taking action to remove that teacher.”

Whether the sexual abuse could have been prevented or flagged sooner if the school had addressed the bullying complaints is one of the key questions raised in the lawsuit the school district now faces.

A total of six parents and two former students told KQED Houg had bullied them or their children. Parents said he was respected by some in the wealthy Silicon Valley town of Los Gatos, earning acclaim and admiration for the elaborate youth theater productions he directed.

Parents like Blair-Olsen said the bullying her son experienced in the 2003–2004 school year amounted to emotional abuse, but school officials took no action when she complained.

“That really changed a 10-year-old. And he carries it deep. I would love for him to be freed of this, this whole thing,” Blair-Olsen said. “Bullying should not be allowed in schools. It’s not allowed, especially by a teacher.”

Blair-Olsen said Houg would yell at her son to keep his head down during class or send him out of the classroom for small infractions. The rest of the class was encouraged by Houg to take part in the bullying, too, Blair-Olsen said.

Blair-Olsen shared agenda notes she wrote in preparation for meetings with the principal and then later with the district superintendent when she was considering taking her son out of the school.

“Mr. Houg has dealt with Mike’s shortcomings by publicly berating and humiliating him … He has publicly stated he did not want Mike in his class,” notes from 2004 read. “He referred [to] Mike needing a dunce cap to motivate him.”

Blair-Olsen said the experience in Houg’s class changed her son’s demeanor, and he appeared to emotionally deflate throughout the year.

After Houg was arrested in September 2020, parents started talking. Some shared their concerns on Nextdoor, and one parent, Melody Garliepp, set up a Facebook group for parents or former students to share information they knew about inappropriate behavior by Houg.

“I just kept hearing story after story after story, and this went on for almost two decades,” said Garliepp. “The district and the principal are going to tell us that they don’t have a problem with him? I have a huge problem with the district and the principal and the other teachers that allowed him the power.”

She and her husband, Jon Garliepp, said the harassment their fifth grade daughter experienced in the 2007–2008 school year was so relentless they told the district they would go to the police if the behavior continued. The harassment stopped after that, they said.

When they learned Houg was arrested years later, they were frustrated and angry.

“You’re made to feel like, ‘OK, maybe it’s us. Maybe we have a bad kid.’ You start questioning yourself when in fact, no, this is happening,” said Garliepp.

A former student in Houg’s fifth grade class, Marc Weiner, said he was bullied and ostracized by Houg during the 2011-2012 school year at Blossom Hill.

Weiner shared handwritten notes with KQED written by his father in preparation for discussions with Reynolds and Houg.

“Toxic teacher. Multiple incidents of name calling … Punitive Action. Verbal abuse. Damaging Marc’s Ego, Self Confidence,” the notes read. “Is this an isolated situation? You … have a problem — a ticking time bomb.”

Weiner said Houg later approached him in the hallway and asked him why he told his parents about his behavior. Weiner said he was alarmed when that happened, but relieved that the bullying stopped.

The case could go to trial

The lawsuit filed against the school district argues that by not addressing the complaints against Houg, he was emboldened to continue abusing children for years.

It also calls for the school to adopt adequate training for teachers on red flag behavior, informing parents and students of the right to file a complaint, and more oversight on extracurricular activities.

The district, for its part, denies wrongdoing and initially countersued a group of parents, the Blossom Hill Home and School Club, which fundraises for the district. The district argued the parent’s group was responsible for supervising Houg during a play dress rehearsal where he sexually abused one of the plaintiffs. Last month, however, the district dismissed its complaint against the club.

District officials declined interview requests from KQED, and declined to answer specific questions sent to them. A spokesperson for the district said it would not be appropriate to comment because of ongoing litigation beyond the statement from Superintendent Johnson.

Boskovich, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the victims want to see policy changes to stop more students from enduring what they did.

One of the plaintiffs is a teenager still in school.

“He wants to make sure students are protected,” Boskovich said. “I think it’s reasonable to ask that you take measures to protect kids.”

A civil jury trial on the lawsuit is scheduled for November, and a hearing on the district’s motion to dismiss the case is set for Oct. 20.

Correction (Oct. 14): The original version of this story noted that the Los Gatos Unified School District countersued a parent-led fundraising group, claiming the group was responsible for supervising Houg during a play dress rehearsal when one of the plaintiffs was sexually abused. The story did not note, however, that the district dismissed its complaint against the club on Sept. 20, 2022. That detail has since been included.

Sponsored

lower waypoint
next waypoint
Hundreds Battle Sonoma County Fire as Evacuation Orders Remain in PlaceEast San José School Conspired to Hide Teacher's Sexual Abuse, 11 Victims Allege in LawsuitSee Where Wildfires Are Burning in CaliforniaSan Francisco's First Mayoral DebateSF Supervisors Consider Overnight Curfew for Tenderloin Food, Retail ShopsGov. Gavin Newsom and Top Democrats Are Deciding California's Budget Behind Closed DoorsSurvivors Of Burned Down Palm Springs Neighborhood Seek ReparationsSan Francisco Lawmakers Want Sober Housing to Be Part of Homelessness PlanHow Influencers and Algorithms Undermine Democracy — and How to Fight BackSanta Cruz Startup 3D Prints Surfboards From Recycled Hospital Trays