Seyward Darby  |  The Atavist Magazine  |  August 2022 | 10 minutes (2,937 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 130, “Fault Lines.

The Atavist Magazine, our sister site, publishes one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a member.

The earthquake hit at 4:31 a.m. For the next 20 seconds the ground shook, rippled, and roared. Cracks tore up the sides of buildings, and higher floors pancaked onto lower ones. Steel-reinforced concrete beams buckled as sections of elevated roadway collapsed. Transformers exploded, and burst water mains flooded residential streets.

People were jolted awake by what felt like a freight train barreling through their homes. When it stopped, before the aftershocks began rolling in, survivors saw stars. “They were so close to me and very bright,” one man remembered. The earthquake had killed electrical power in the San Fernando Valley, plunging it into darkness. For the first time many Valley residents could remember, they saw the night sky in luminous detail.

The earthquake of January 17, 1994, which measured 6.7 on the Richter scale, left 72 people dead, thousands injured, and tens of thousands homeless across the greater Los Angeles area. Damage was estimated in the billions of dollars. The event was dubbed the Northridge earthquake, named for a hard-hit part of the Valley, but the epicenter was actually farther south in Reseda, a diverse working-class neighborhood.

Some 11 miles beneath Reseda lay a blind thrust fault, so called because it can’t be seen on the earth’s surface. Unlike visible fissures such as the San Andreas Fault, blind thrust faults are difficult to detect and map. But where there’s one, there are likely to be many: By the early 1990s, according to the urban theorist Mike Davis in his book Ecology of Fear, scientists believed there was a “dense thicket” of hidden faults underneath Los Angeles, threatening to convulse the city.

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Grover Cleveland High School sat a few blocks from the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake. The school’s low-slung buildings suffered so much damage that students couldn’t attend classes for several weeks afterward. When they returned, they couldn’t eat lunch in the cafeteria because the facility had been condemned. Instead they ate in whatever nooks and crannies they could find—in hallway corners, on concrete quads, or in classrooms, sometimes with their teachers.

In E Hall, part of the northernmost section of campus, eating lunch in a teacher’s room was a badge of honor. The faculty of E Hall were celebrity educators, rock stars of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). They ran Cleveland’s renowned humanities magnet, an interdisciplinary program combining instruction in history, literature, art, and philosophy. “We were like a little Sarah Lawrence in the middle of a Title I school,” an alum told me, referring to the federal program that provides financial assistance for schools with a large population of low-income students. Since its founding in 1981, the magnet had been the subject of glowing news stories, and schools across Los Angeles had replicated its curriculum. The program, which called itself Core, produced so many graduates bound for top-notch colleges that some alumni referred to the University of California at Berkeley as “Core north.”

Core teachers prided themselves on being radicals. They encouraged students to eschew taboos, expand their horizons, and question conventional wisdom. They lectured on systemic racism and postmodernism, and they treated the teenagers they were tasked with educating as “young men and women,” a phrase the program’s founder, Neil Anstead, was fond of using. In turn, the students worshipped them.

Chris Miller was an object of particularly intense adoration. Miller, who taught American history and social studies to juniors, had been with Core since its founding. His students read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. They discussed the imperative of dismantling white supremacy and the patriarchy. A white man approaching fifty, Miller wore Birkenstocks and jewelry, and had a long ponytail that he adorned with a threaded hair wrap, the kind popular among aging hippies and teenage girls. He hugged students and urged them to talk about their feelings; crying wasn’t unusual in his classes.

* Asterisks denote pseudonyms The Atavist is using for women who requested that they not be identified in this story.

The fall semester after the Northridge earthquake, Jackie* began eating lunch in Miller’s room. Jackie was petite, with dark hair and a wide, winning smile. But, entering the 11th grade, she felt insecure. “I basically advertised within those first few weeks that I was an incredibly vulnerable 16-year-old girl,” Jackie told me. She assumed that her friends were smarter than she was, and her parents’ rocky marriage was taking an emotional toll. Meanwhile, she struggled to navigate the sexual attention that men and boys had begun showing her.

Miller made Jackie feel comfortable in his class right away. “He was teaching us things other people were afraid to teach us,” she said. “He was brave, he was a pioneer.” When they talked one on one, she felt that he treated her like an adult, asking her about her life and listening when she spoke. He gave her The Celestine Prophecy, a popular novel about a man’s spiritual awakening, to read and discuss with him. Barely a month into school, Jackie wrote in her diary that Miller was “so fucking cool”—and also a “big flirt” and “very sexual.”

One day, Miller asked Jackie if he was right in sensing an attraction between them. Jackie felt like she had to say yes or he would be disappointed. Besides, maybe she did like him, or should. When Miller asked if she’d ever had sex, Jackie told him she had, which was true. In response, Miller drove her to get an HIV test. Jackie felt like he was taking care of her.

They started seeing each other off campus—teachers and students in Core often interacted outside school, so Jackie didn’t think twice about it. But then, according to Jackie, Miller began sexually abusing her. Once, while giving her a ride to a friend’s house, he pulled over and lunged across the console between them. As Miller kissed Jackie, he placed her hand on his erection. On another occasion, he took her to the beach with two of her friends, both male Core students. The group sat on the sand, with Jackie leaning against Miller’s legs, his arms wrapped around her, and his hands on her breasts. That night, as Miller drove Jackie home, he told her that she could “use” him to work through the problems in her life. He suggested that they write letters to each other and leave them in a filing cabinet in his classroom. He told her to call him “Journey” in the correspondence.

Miller said he loved her. Jackie wanted to believe him. It would be more than two decades before she learned that she wasn’t the only student Miller pursued—and that Miller wasn’t the only Core teacher who allegedly targeted students for abuse.

‘They put the magnet program’s reputation over a student’s well-being,’ Kate said. ‘That hurts, you know?’

In 2021, Jackie and three other Jane Does filed lawsuits claiming they were groomed and sexually abused while they were students in Core. Four former teachers, including Miller, are named in the suits as perpetrators. The alleged abuse happened between 1994 and 2009; during that same time frame, according to public records, two additional Core teachers were convicted of crimes involving students, including statutory rape, and a third Cleveland teacher whose classes were popular with magnet students was convicted of possession of child pornography.

Read the legal complaints filed by the four Jane Does and an open letter written by the first woman to come forward to report abuse.

An estimated 10 percent of U.S. students suffer sexual misconduct at the hands of a school employee before they leave high school. Over the past decade, LAUSD has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in response to abuse and harassment claims. What makes Core unique is the number of teachers accused of misconduct over a prolonged period, and the apparent use of the magnet’s curriculum itself to groom students. There is also evidence that some of the teachers’ colleagues and school officials were aware of what was happening but did little or nothing to stop it. “They put the magnet program’s reputation over a student’s well-being. That hurts, you know?” said Kate*, a classmate of Jackie’s and another plaintiff in the lawsuits. “At the end of the day, it was almost like they didn’t care.”

Like the blind thrust faults beneath Los Angeles, the network of suspected wrongdoing at Core is dense, and its capacity for devastation is enormous. This story is based on extensive interviews with the four Jane Does, dozens of other Core alumni, and multiple educators with knowledge of the program. It draws from hundreds of pages of depositions and other legal documents, as well as personal correspondence, yearbooks, journals, and social media postings shared by Core graduates. Two of the accused teachers, including Miller, are deceased; the others either declined to comment for this story or did not respond to interview requests. A spokesperson for LAUSD, which is named as a defendant in the lawsuits, said in a statement that the district “does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.”

In 2021, Core celebrated its 40th anniversary. The program remains a crown jewel of LA’s public education system. The women who have come forward understand why: Core taught them to disrupt the status quo, expose injustice, and demand accountability for harm. Now they are doing just that.

Magnet programs were created to right wrongs. In the late 1960s, U.S. cities responded to persistent racial segregation by launching specialized courses of study—science and math, for instance, or language immersion—in public schools. Students throughout a district were invited to apply; acceptance was contingent on factors such as racial background and socioeconomic status. The programs were called magnets because they were intended to attract students from all walks of life.

In 1981, Cleveland’s principal asked Neil Anstead to develop a magnet program inside the high school. A Renaissance man, Anstead had been teaching social studies, economics, and art history at Cleveland for more than twenty years; he loved opera so much, he eventually offered a class in that, too. Anstead designed a program predicated on the idea that the humanities were for everyone—not just, in his words, “upper- and middle-class students,” or those of “higher ability.” Magnet students were bused in from across the Valley and other parts of Los Angeles.

The magnet’s curriculum was organized thematically: 9th grade focused on world cultures, 10th on Western civilization, 11th on American studies, and 12th on philosophy and modern thought. “Core” became shorthand for the program because magnet pupils took a nucleus of humanities courses together and attended classes in other subjects alongside the rest of the Cleveland student body. Magnet courses focused on writing—lots of essays, few tests—and were rooted in discussions of what Anstead described as questions “important to living more meaningful lives.” Among them: Is there free will? What is art? Should people be guided more by reason or by emotion? “In the hands of flexible and sensitive teachers,” Anstead wrote in a paper for the Getty Center for Education in the Arts, these questions “keep students hooked from bell to bell.”

Technically, Core was subject to the authority of Cleveland’s main office. In practice, however, it was a school within a school. Anstead served as the de facto administrator, making hiring decisions, managing budgets, and overseeing curriculum development. But magnet faculty enjoyed a great deal of autonomy—Anstead, who developed a reputation among Core students for being gentle and brilliant, if a bit absentminded, gave teachers free rein over their classes. Each grade had a faculty team led by a coordinator; the team co-taught some class sessions and graded students’ essays together. “Teachers must be workaholics,” Anstead once told the Los Angeles Times. “They must be prepared to spend evenings, weekends, and part of their summers together.” Magnet faculty tended to be charismatic: Some teachers were personable in class, forging friendships with students, while others engaged in argumentative dialogue or maintained the cool detachment of an august college professor.

The program was an instant hit. One early alum wrote in a testimonial for the magnet that graduate school “began where … Core classes left off.” Another alum told me that when she got to UCLA, her essays were of such high quality that her professors thought she was plagiarizing. Core became so beloved that before long there was a robust pipeline of alumni who, after finishing college, came back to teach in the program.

In 1986, the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a nonprofit organization, decided to build on Core’s success by installing similar programs at public schools throughout the city. LAEP called the initiative Humanitas, and participating teachers shadowed Core faculty to learn how to craft and implement a humanities curriculum. Within five years, Humanitas had chapters in 29 schools, involving some 3,500 students and 180 teachers. “In most high schools, you just pass from class to class. If you’re lucky, you might have a teacher who understands you and tries to help you with stuff. But that was not the case here,” Judith Johnson, a former LAEP administrator, told me. “By bringing people into teams, the teachers had a community, and the kids had a community.”

‘Stay away from Miller,’ an older female student told Kappes at lunch one day. ‘He tries to sleep with students.’

When Kasia Kappes entered Core as a freshman in 1991, she was nervous. Bright and artistic, Kappes had attended a Catholic middle school, where she wore a uniform and the teachers ran a tight ship. Public school seemed chaotic by comparison. But in E Hall, in the bubble of Core, Kappes felt at home. The teachers were engaging, the classes were inspiring, and the students were enthusiastic. “I just thought sending me there was the best thing my parents ever did for me,” Kappes told me.

Like any high school, however, Cleveland had a rumor mill, and teachers were often the subject of gossip. There were stories about Core instructors who smoked with students. Two longtime faculty members were said to be having an affair. Students talked about an art teacher who was “creepy” with male students. Girls whispered about a math instructor who looked up their skirts in class.

One rumor gave Kappes pause, because it was accompanied by a warning. “Stay away from Miller,” an older female student told her at lunch one day. “He tries to sleep with students.”

Kappes decided to do what the student said, just in case she was right. That worked well enough until 11th grade, when she was in Miller’s class. One day he pulled Kappes aside and asked why she wouldn’t talk to him. “I wasn’t going to accuse a teacher of sleeping with a student,” Kappes said. “So I made something up.” He was friendly, and Kappes felt like he was being genuine. She decided to give him a chance.

Soon she was spending a lot of time in Miller’s classroom, a standalone building on a corner of campus facing an adjoining street. Miller was known to let students ditch school by climbing out his window. The room had Malcolm X and Bob Marley posters. When teenagers hung out there between classes, at lunch, or after school, Miller asked about their friendships and their crushes.

In class, Miller did more than ask questions: He encouraged students to talk about their personal lives in relation to the Core curriculum. Miller was the 11th-grade coordinator, overseeing units on classism, racism, and gender and sexuality, and when it came to sharing about those topics, nothing seemed off limits. Kids described trauma, anxiety, and problems at home. Students of color talked about encountering bias, a topic that was the subject of an annual class exercise called the power pyramid. Core juniors were corralled into a room and instructed to organize themselves according to race: Black and Latino students were on the floor, Asian students were on chairs, and white students stood over everyone. This, the kids were told, was how society saw them.

Miller also showed students provocative movies, including Oleanna, a David Mamet film based on his play of the same name, which depicts a female college student who accuses a male professor of sexual harassment. According to Kappes, Miller wanted to know what the class thought of the plot: “Was there inappropriateness going on between the two? Where do you draw the line on that kind of stuff?”

Kappes trusted Miller and confided in him. Once, after she got in a fight with her parents, he picked her up at home and drove her to a friend’s place. It wasn’t unusual for Core teachers to go above and beyond for a student. Kappes said that one teacher, Rene Shufelt, helped pay for her art school applications. Kappes also considered Richard Coleman, Core’s 10th-grade coordinator, a “legit friend.” She took care of his cats when he was out of town, and Coleman joined Kappes and her friends at movies, concerts, and Disneyland. Over Thanksgiving break in 1994, Kappes’s senior year, she and a few other girls went on a camping trip to Arizona led by Coleman, an avid hiker. According to depositions from Kappes and other students on the trip, the only other chaperone was Coleman’s friend David DeMetz, a paramedic in his mid-twenties.

Kappes and her friends weren’t sneaking around. “We’d come back to school and be like, ‘Oh yeah, we went hiking with Coleman.’ No one batted an eyelash at any of this,” Kappes said. “As weird as things seemed at times, it was also just kind of normal.”

Normal is a word many Core alumni use to talk about things that were anything but. A better word, perhaps, is pervasive. The blurring of lines between students and teachers was everywhere. So was speculation about lines being crossed outright. But a rumor is just a rumor, until the moment it isn’t.

Read the full story at The Atavist.