Lawyer Demands Records on Sex Abuse at Junior Theater

SAN DIEGO (CN) – A San Diego attorney says two deputy city attorneys serving on the board of the San Diego Junior Theater failed to comply with “mandatory reporting” requirements when they learned of sexual abuse allegations against some of the theater’s teachers.

Attorney and parent Matt Valenti, represented by local attorney Cory Briggs, says the city of San Diego has failed to adequately respond to several California Public Records Act requests he filed this year. He seeks documents that show what city officials – including deputy city attorneys and current Junior Theater board members Catherine Morrison and Joan Dawson – knew about sexual abuse allegations lodged at some theater teachers last year, and when they knew about the allegations.

San Diego Junior Theater is a 70-year-old nonprofit that claims to be the oldest children’s theater program in the United States. It uses city-owned facilities in San Diego’s historic Balboa Park to put on its theater productions, and receives funding from the city.

Valenti says Junior Theater board members were made aware of sexual abuse allegations against two of its teachers in August 2016. But Morrison and Dawson, both board members at the time, did not report the allegations to authorities, with Dawson instead proposing an amendment to the board’s bylaws to maintain confidentiality concerning the organization’s information and records, Valenti says.

“As board members of an organization whose duties require direct contact and supervision of children, Morrison and Dawson were ‘mandated reporters,’ but they never reported the allegations to law enforcement authorities,” the 6-page complaint, filed Nov. 16 and made available Monday, states.

Former Junior Theater teacher Eric von Metzke pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor and was sentenced to three years in prison earlier this year. According to a sentencing memorandum by the District Attorney’s Office attached to Valenti’s complaint, von Metzke had sex with at least two 16-year-old Junior Theater students.

The sentencing memo said several people at Junior Theater knew about the inappropriate relationships between von Metzke and the teenage girls, including a teacher who apparently kept the information private for two months before reporting it.

Valenti claims the city has improperly redacted or failed to disclose other responsive records to his requests. He seeks a declaration that the city has not properly fulfilled his records request and a mandate ordering the city to comply with state public records laws and produce the documents the Junior Theater parent seeks.

The attorney says he tried to alert city officials, including Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the City Council, to what he claims is a conflict of interest in deputy city attorneys serving on the board of Junior Theater.

But a letter by City Attorney spokesman Gerry Braun to the mayor and council members defended the attorneys’ participation on the board, noting they are volunteers and parents of Junior Theater students. Braun said they sought advice from the Ethics Commission regarding their tenure on the board.

“Their professionalism and integrity are beyond question … the city attorney is proud of the culture of volunteerism in our office and encourages all employees to give back to the community,” Braun wrote in the May 2 letter produced in response to Valenti’s records request.

Valenti told Courthouse News his kids were in the Junior Theater program for eight years and that his family practically “lived at the theater” before the sexual assault controversy arose last year.

“I’m a parent who has kids in the program. My number one and only concern has been safety for the kids. I want the truth to come out and for the kids to be protected,” Valenti said.

In addition to his complaint filed in Superior Court, Valenti has filed a complaint with state Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office.

Reached by telephone, Braun said the City Attorney has not yet been served with the complaint.

 

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