How Did a Fullerton Junior High Teacher Abuse Boys for Years Without Administrators Finding Out?

How Did a Fullerton Junior High Teacher Abuse Boys for Years Without Administrators Finding Out?
Jeff Drew

Melissa Nicole Lindgren looked every bit the eighth-grade-math teacher as she sat behind a table on the morning of Oct. 7, 2016. She wore a modest, baby-blue shirt with neatly rolled-up sleeves, pink-purple eye shadow and bright-red lipstick. Her eyebrows were smartly shaped; her straight brown hair, parted on the side and long outgrown of its layered cut, reached past her shoulders. A hair band squeezed around Lindgren's wrist, and horn-rimmed glasses rested in front of her.

But the Lakewood native was far from her former classroom at Nicolas Junior High in Fullerton. Lindgren sat in the visitors' center of Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, the largest ladies prison in the United States. She had just finished 10 months of a four-year stint for lewd acts committed against three of her former students, charges she pleaded guilty to in 2015. Around the 31-year-old were a phalanx of lawyers representing her, her victims and the Fullerton School District (FSD).

And sitting right in front of Lindgren was John C. Manly, the legendary Newport Beach lawyer who hounded the Catholic Church across the world the previous decade over its protection of pedophile priests, unleashed a flurry of lawsuits on the Los Angeles Unified School District for harboring molester teachers, and currently represents former United States women's gymnastics team members in cases against Dr. Larry Nassar that allege he sexually assaulted them for years.

Manly and his team had driven the 250 miles from their Irvine offices to take Lindgren's deposition for a civil case filed in Orange County Superior Court. The lawsuit argued administrators ignored multiple warning signs that she had molested students in her classroom and outside the school for years. "Had Defendants properly investigated, supervised, trained and monitored Defendant Lindgren's conduct and actions as a teacher at [Nicolas], they would have discovered . . . she was unfit to be employed as a teacher," read a May 2015 complaint filed by attorneys Kathryn Greer and Allegra P. Rineer on behalf of a Lindgren victim against her, FSD and Matthew Barnett, the Nicolas principal who once told police detectives that an argument Lindgren had with a student during school had the "appearance of, like, being a boyfriend/girlfriend" spat between the two of them. "By failing to adequately supervise, monitor or investigate her, Defendants allowed Lindgren to continue, unhindered, with her predatory conduct directed toward minor male students."

Lindgren nervously glanced at the lawyers in the CCWF visitors' center as they identified themselves to begin the videotaped deposition. After a court reporter swore her in, Manly explained the ground rules for the next four hours. "And so it's very important that you give your best and most accurate testimony here today," he said. "Okay?"

"Okay," Lindgren responded.

But that wouldn't happen.

*     *     *     *     *

Just beginning to scratch the surface
Just beginning to scratch the surface
Rockography

Even before Fullerton police pulled Lindgren out of her fifth-period lecture on Feb. 21, 2014, after a student told staff she had texted him sexually explicit pictures, school officials knew they had a problem teacher on their hands. Internal FSD reports show how school officials tolerated Lindgren getting too close to her pupils even after warning her about it; ignored claims by other students that she was acting inappropriately with their peers; didn't actively pursue an anonymous letter that disclosed the instructor had a sexual relationship with a former student; and allowed her transgressions to escalate until it was too late. Another civil suit against FSD even claimed that a Nicolas Junior High English teacher who saw Lindgren "intimately embracing and kissing" a student reported it to Barnett, who did nothing; both Barnett and the English teacher denied the charge.

Originally scheduled for a jury trial in November, FSD trustees approved a $3.25 million settlement of three Lindgren cases in January, a decision never publicly disclosed until now. The district's last comment on the matter was a Feb. 27, 2014, letter by Superintendent Robert Pletka to "parents, students and community members" thanking everyone for the "pride and commitment you demonstrated as parents, as you came together to provide input and help find solutions.

"Fullerton School District," Pletka concluded, "is entirely committed to transparency and to providing our parents with the information they need to keep them updated on important events and, of course, this incident especially." (His office did not return a request for comment.)

But from the moment of Lindgren's arrest until the settlement, district officials actively tried to keep details of her crimes secret. Parents at a town hall meeting held after the teacher's detainment weren't notified that her superiors had long feared she had relations with students. One mother who defended Lindgren at that town hall found out her son was a victim only after the police interrogated her son days later, even though students had already told administrators that Lindgren had "a thing" with him. Another mother who had long complained about Lindgren to school officials finally got an apology from them "for not taking action against Lindgren three years prior" after the teacher's confession, according to her lawsuit.

 

District lawyers tried to have all civil suits dismissed, arguing FSD held no responsibility because "[Lindgren's] sexual contacts with a student are outside the course and scope of her employment as a teacher." And when it came time for Manly and his team to depose her and other FSD employees, their counsel objected to dozens of questions, not allowing Manly to find out how deep the scandal truly went or for how long.

There were no hints that Lindgren would become such a headache for FSD or ruin so many lives when she applied for a job in 2008. A liberal-studies graduate of Cal State Fullerton, the then-23-year-old came with glowing recommendations and a stint as a substitute teacher. "I love working with children and will continue to strive to be a positive influence in their lives," she wrote in a cover letter. "I hope to instill a love of learning and desire for constant knowledge within each student."

Kids immediately liked her because she was young and relatable. "I knew that she was, like, one of, like the nicest teachers" at Nicolas, a victim of hers said during his deposition. "Like, she would let the students, like, kind of, like, do what they want."

She'd show up to class wearing a Hello Kitty T-shirt. Lindgren freely handed out her cellphone to students and cussed out loud. A 2009 evaluation called her a "valued member of the Nicolas Junior High School teaching staff," adding that she "continues to get stronger as she gains experience." A 2010 follow-up commended her for "manag[ing] her classes beautifully."

"My job is to create a safe learning environment," Lindgren wrote in a self-evaluation, "where students . . . are pushed to their full abilities."

But warning signs were already there. Students whispered that Lindgren let kids make out in her class during lunch periods. She covered windows in her classroom—one door down from the teacher's lounge, three from the principal's office—with posters and construction paper. After driving a high school student home, Barnett warned Lindgren that such moves were dangerous to her career, but he did nothing else about it. Sometimes, she'd cry during class, with texts from her boyfriend projected onto a screen.

In late 2009, Lindgren filed for and received a restraining order against a woman who sent an email to all Nicolas staff claiming Lindgren was having an affair with the woman's husband, a Fullerton police officer assigned to the middle school. About a year later, a student told Nicolas officials that Lindgren held drugs and "other things" for students. Barnett and his assistant principal searched her desk and room and found nothing; they'd do random frisks for the next three years.

In May 2012, Lindgren got into a public argument with an eighth-grade boy (let's call him AA) during a school event. School notes about the clash reveal that onlookers heard Lindgren call the student a "pussy" and that she discussed "drinking and smoking and sex" with him. The student's mother told administrators her son tried to commit suicide because of the fight, which they didn't take seriously. "He did not want to say anything about" Lindgren, according to a report, "because she is the cool teacher. He feels like he will have retribution if he tells on her."

Lindgren's supervisors ordered her to set boundaries with students and have another adult present if teens were in her room outside of class time. By doing this, said a memo, "we believe that you will avoid difficult situations in the future and not have the distraction of student gossip about you on campus or in class."

Yet Lindgren kept hosting students alone. Instead of disciplining her, according to a time line of events compiled by FSD, officials "reminded [her] verbally not to have students in her room after several violations of these instructions."

In March 2013, an anonymous letter sent to Fullerton police stated Lindgren had "inappropriate communications and possibly physical contact with her former student," as well as that she was sexting with current students. Detectives found the student, who denied any relationship. However, those detectives didn't interview Lindgren, nor did school officials ask her about the allegations until months later. By then, pictures of her in workout clothes, sports bras and dancing on a pole, as well as other racy shots, were already circulated among Nicolas kids. She "performed oral copulation" on a student named BB in class, according to another lawsuit, and picked him up from his house while his parents were away; the two would make out and touch each other sexually in a nearby Fresh & Easy parking lot.

 

BB eventually spent so much time with Lindgren that he'd later tell police detectives that Barnett "asked [him] why he was spending so much time in [her] classroom, outside of normal class hours." Instead of pursuing the matter, BB testified, Barnett gave the victim a one-week suspension after he felt the student disrespected him.

By then, Lindgren was openly complaining to colleagues that Barnett and his team were treating her unfairly. But she gave him cause. In August 2013, she missed a mandatory staff meeting; according to district documents, Barnett told her that "her behavior in this incident follows a pattern of irresponsible behavior." Another letter reiterated previous warnings, advising that if Lindgren followed her agreed-upon boundaries, she would "lessen the likelihood of accusations of impropriety and give you a defensible position in the event someone has questions."

The behavior didn't stop. That November, she asked a student if he wanted to see photos of her at Sea World on her phone; instead, Lindgren flashed photos of her bare breasts. She told him "not to say anything" and rubbed her behind against the teenager's crotch as a reward. The two contacted each other via Kik during the winter break, and Lindgren sent more naked photos.

As 2014 started, rumors about Lindgren's behavior became so pervasive on campus that one student gave his number to her, to see what would happen; she promptly sent him three photos, including an extreme close-up of her vaginal lips parted by distinctive pink nails decorated with white polka dots that she had bragged about in class. Another student asked her if she knew "there were photos of her going around," according to a police report filed after her arrest. "Lindgren told him that if he respected her, he wouldn't say anything."

By February, Lindgren told one of her victims to tell students to delete the pictures she had sent, pleading that her life would be "ruined." But she couldn't help herself. A week before her arrest, she sent a video of herself masturbating to another student. Finally, two students reported her sexting to school officials. Fullerton police first interrogated her at Nicolas, where she told investigators through tears, "I know I did something wrong. I made a big mistake."

She admitted to molesting three students and gave investigators their names before they handcuffed her and drove her to the police station for further questioning. Subsequent interviews by Nicolas staff with students obtained by the Weekly show that kids had long known about her actions. One said she was "flirting with kids last year." Another said that his friend had confessed she "touched him 'sexually.'" One boy said that Lindgren had rubbed her behind against a student's genitals "several times." And an eighth-grader said he "knew since last year about the pictures being sent" because "students [were] talking about it."

*     *     *     *     *

Immediately after Lindgren's arrest, FSD honchos seemed apologetic and regretful. "This occurrence is in direct conflict of Fullerton School District's zero-tolerance policy on staff misconduct, where the district's teachers, faculty and staff are held to a higher standard," read a press release by a crisis PR firm FSD quickly hired after Lindgren's arrest. "The Fullerton School District takes every precaution to ensure only the highest quality learning environment is provided to its students."

"More than once in the past with her, she has been warned not to be so familiar with kids," FSD Assistant Superintendent of Personnel Mark Douglas told three Fullerton detectives for a police report. "We had concerns before, and I can't remember when it was, and it made us real nervous at that point and time, but we couldn't prove it."

At a special FSD board meeting held just days after Lindgren's arrest, Barnett led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance and "thanked the Board of Trustees and Executive Cabinet for their exemplary support of Nicolas students, faculty and staff during this difficult time," according to board minutes.

"It just seemed weird," he told police, regarding Lindgren repeatedly hosting students in her room outside class times. "It wasn't like—I couldn't put my finger on it. It was just, it just, it just seemed weird."

Barnett tried to justify his inactions. "There were no accusations about impropriety or anything like that . . . that we could follow up on," he said, although he added that he once told his assistant principal, Dennis Perry, "I hope [molestation] isn't going on."

But by the time depositions for the civil lawsuits began, Barnett and Douglas became far more defensive.

"I thought a lot about what we, you know, if there's anything we could have done differently," Barnett told attorney Vince Finaldi on Oct. 13 at the law offices of Manly, Stewart and Finaldi in Irvine near the beginning of his deposition. "And to be honest, after reviewing everything in my mind and looking at my notes, I can't think of a single thing that we could have done in our roles to do anything differently."

 

He admitted to Finaldi that Lindgren was on his "radar" more than other teachers and that "incidences were happening in a way that made me think like, okay, this is something I need to pay attention to." Nevertheless, he dismissed the Lindgren case as an "aberration."

Barnett: Nice bow tie!
Barnett: Nice bow tie!

Finaldi didn't buy Barnett's story. He asked why the principal didn't put something in Lindgren's personnel file about the anonymous letter received by Fullerton police in 2011; Barnett replied that detectives told him "there was nothing that was true about it or there was nothing [detectives] could verify about it."

The former Marine was incredulous. He asked Barnett why he let three months pass before asking Lindgren about the anonymous letter. "I don't remember why it took so long to get back to her," Barnett replied.

"It was three months, right?

"It was."

"You waited three months to talk to Miss Lindgren about this?"

"I did."

"And you don't know why?" Finaldi asked.

"No," replied Barnett, now director of educational services for FSD.

"So if she had been having sex with students, she could have continued to do that for three months?"

"Could have been."

"Was that a mistake," a flabbergasted Finaldi responded, "not talking to her right away?"

"It would have been best to talk to her closer to when the investigation happened, yes."

Barnett became defensive again when Finaldi said Lindgren was sexually abusing boys "right under your nose."

"It wasn't under my nose because we were . . . I . . . the door was shut or she did it in times I wasn't able to be there," Barnett replied. "I tried to be around on campus a lot. And if you talk to the kids and the parents, that's one of the things that I did. However, I'm not able to be everywhere every time. So, no, I wasn't able to find this out."

Finaldi tried a different line of questioning on Douglas. In 2014, Douglas had made news after testifying in a court case about "The Dance of the Lemons," a practice by school districts in which they dump bad teachers in lower-income, minority schools. Parents there "don't know what to look for in a great teacher," he told a jury then. "And so sometimes they won't complain about a teacher that [is] at low-end schools because they are not familiar and [do not] know how to navigate through the system. And so a teacher can exist without parent pressure at a lower-end school."

Lindgren during her deposition
Lindgren during her deposition

Now retired, Douglas denied that Lindgren was dumped at Nicolas, a majority Latino school on Fullerton's south side. Administration "functioned appropriately in regards [to her case] . . . I'm satisfied." He remained flippant throughout the deposition, cracking at one point that teachers talking about their sex life to students was "not on the curriculum" and rolling his eyes at a question regarding Lindgren trying to make a girlfriend of one of her victims break up with him. Douglas also tried to justify the hiring of a PR firm, telling Manly, who was also present, "When you have someone who you really want to rely on to have [PR work] done, you hire out sometimes to have it done with expertise."

"Isn't it true that what you were trying to do is minimize the negative perception publicly of the district?" Manly shot back.

"That's—that's an issue, but that isn't the first issue," Douglas replied, claiming he cared primarily about students and letting parents know.

"So you hired an outside crisis public relations firm for the safety of the kids."

"Absolutely."

Perry seemed to be the only administrator who felt any real remorse. A former child-care worker who's now the principal at Jane Addams Middle School in Lawndale, he claimed in his deposition that Barnett never informed him about allegations Lindgren had called one of her victims a "pussy" or that she described his girlfriend as a "little blond slut." When Finaldi read Perry those comments, Perry said he was "upset. If these things were really said to a child by a teacher, it just upsets me personally because it's just so inappropriate. . . . I would have liked to have known about it."

Perry said he would've called police if he had heard any allegations Lindgren—whom he didn't supervise—had sex with students because "I have a moral imperative. I have a moral duty to report something like that if a student told me that firsthand."

He had long left the district by the time he received a text from a Nicolas teacher about Lindgren's arrest. "I was disgusted, angry," he said. "Just wishing that—that we had had something, you know, that could have really—you know, really stuck to be able to yank her out of there."

 

*     *     *     *     *

Little came out of Lindgren's deposition in Chowchilla. She frequently broke down in tears, and her attorney constantly instructed her to not answer questions by Manly based on her Fifth Amendment right to not self-incriminate. There was so much stonewalling that a frustrated Manly at one point told FSD lead counsel Dana John McCune, "You've been huffing and puffing this entire deposition when you don't like a question. You're supposed to behave like you're in court, and you're not."

There are six known Lindgren victims, which would make her one of the most prolific female teacher child abusers in Orange County history. But Manly believes the figure is higher. "She was there for five and a half years, and only a fraction of sexually abused boys ever come forward," he said. "You do the math."

Manly's firm has litigated nearly a billion dollars' worth of settlements in child-abuse cases ("What I've learned is that I can sadly do these cases for 100 years, and we wouldn't have even scratched the surface"), so he's seen all sorts of scandals. But the Lindgren saga particularly bothers him. "How could these educators—good people in the rest of their lives—let this happen?" he asked, looking out the window from his eighth-story office. "Molestation in child-care institutions like education and the church doesn't happen more than once without willful ignorance of those involved."

And he also takes exception to the public perception that teenage boys molested by women is not "real" abuse. "There's such a myth about female sexual abuse: 'Oh, that's the best thing that could happen to me,' guys will say," he said. "I even hear other defense lawyers say it. But it's not—it's gross manipulation. A 13-year-old boy is not lucky to have a 31-year-old woman sexualize him. These young men have shattered lives. Anyone who perpetuates that myth is analogous to Milo Yiannopoulos."

That's the sentiments of one of the victim's mothers. She had defended Lindgren at the Nicolas town hall held after her arrest. The two were so close that they texted each other. But when Lindgren was sentenced, the mother submitted a victim's impact statement, her confidence in public educators destroyed forever.

"The pain from the betrayal of this deviant's actions is indescribable. She has paralyzed these victims and their families," she said. "No child should ever have to experience the pain and anguish of being a victim of sexual abuse, and what makes her actions even more reprehensible is that she was in a position of trust as a teacher."

To contact the author, email Gustavo at GArellano@ocweekly.com


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