By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Miguel Vivanco, a former vice principal at Rancho Alamitos High School in Garden Grove, was convicted on May 27 of having unlawful sex with one of his 17-year-old students. Not on trial: the school district that ignored a catalog of similar complaints against Vivanco and promoted him up the ranks.
Vivanco brought a controversial reputation into the Westminster Superior Court. In addition to the felony charges, he is also married to one of his former students (from his days as an English teacher at Santiago High School). Equally controversial but unexplained is how Vivanco rose to the level of vice principal. Despite repeated interview requests, officials with the Garden Grove Unified School District—Vivanco's employer until he resigned on March 13, 1998—have refused to comment on the longtime educator's curious career.
According to court documents, Vivanco's inappropriate behavior with female students began as early as 1985. Although the incident was not reported to district officials at the time, Jami Burke, a 31-year-old Laguna Niguel resident, testified that Vivanco had sex with her when she was a 17-year-old senior at Santiago.
The first of many formal complaints against Vivanco began two years later in 1987. Another former student at Santiago testified that she had a sexual relationship with Vivanco when she was 15 years old. Court documents revealed that the two would often talk in his office, which led to closed and open-mouth kisses. "I felt as though we were dating, in a strange way," she said.
Her first sexual encounter with Vivanco occurred during her sophomore year. She explained that as she was walking home from school, Vivanco picked her up in his orange Porsche and took her to a secluded area. "We were just talking," she said. "I believe I had a skirt on. And then he digitally penetrated my vagina. At the time, I felt a little bit uncomfortable, but I didn't say anything."
The second occurrence, according to the former student, came two weeks later in a junior high school parking lot. "We kissed, hugged, [and] groped," she said.
A short time later, a friend of hers reported the relationship to a female teacher. That led to a meeting between the student, the teacher and Vivanco in which Vivanco flatly denied the accusations. She claimed Vivanco told her, "You need to stop lying. You need to tell the truth. This is just a fantasy to you."
Instead of reprimanding Vivanco, school officials warned the honor student she would be transferred to a different school if she did not stay away from Vivanco.
According to district policy, formal complaints of faculty members sexually assaulting students are generally handled internally without the intervention of law-enforcement officials. The rationale, says a district spokesperson, is to "protect the district, the employee and the student."
The district has denied the Weekly's California Public Records Act request for Vivanco's personnel files. But KCAL's Prime 9 News obtained those documents and, in a May 8, 1998, broadcast, offered brief accounts of several other accusations made against Vivanco over the years.
The district's files reportedly show that while Vivanco was employed as a counselor for at-risk youths at Doig Intermediate School in 1991, a teacher said she witnessed "an intimate embrace" between Vivanco and a female student. The teacher and principal John Barriga informed the district of the incident, but again Vivanco denied it. No disciplinary action was taken, though a district memo cautioned that he was "never under any circumstances to be alone with a female student."
Two years later, Vivanco was promoted to assistant principal at Lake High School. According to a district spokesperson, his duties there included "overseeing scheduling, athletics and disciplinary matters" for all students, male and female. At Lake, records suggest that Vivanco's inappropriate behavior continued. During the spring of 1994, an internal complaint from a female student described an encounter in which Vivanco pressed his body against her in a way she considered "sexually oriented."
In court testimony, that student described her experience with Vivanco. She had a headache and went to the school's office to pick up some Tylenol. Vivanco took her into the teacher's lounge and returned with an ice pack. According to the student, Vivanco "put his arm around me with the ice pack on my head and pulled me toward him." She says that her breasts touched Vivanco's chest and that his groin area rubbed against her lower body.
The girl and her mother reported the episode to school officials the following day, but again no disciplinary action was taken against Vivanco.
"[The allegations] were brought up to the school board, and as far as I know, the police were never brought into it," said Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy. "By the time the police found out about it, the statute of limitations had already expired. We couldn't file charges."
Vivanco was reassigned to Rancho Alamitos in the fall of 1994 as vice principal, a move the district contends was not connected to any improper behavior. During his tenure at Rancho Alamitos, Vivanco allegedly grew bolder in his sexual advances toward female students.
In an interview with the Weekly, an athletic coach at the high school recalled a time when, he says, he found Vivanco in the girls' locker room. "I yelled into the girls' locker room to see if they were ready for practice," said the coach, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I heard a man's voice say, 'Almost.' And I screamed for him to come out of there. He [Vivanco] told me who he was and said that it was okay." The coach says he told Vivanco never to go into the girls' locker room again.