At an Oakland Art School, a Teacher's Arrest for Alleged Sexual Abuse Reopens a Painful History | KQED

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At an Oakland Art School, a Teacher's Arrest for Alleged Sexual Abuse Reopens a Painful History | KQED

a young woman stands with her back to the camera in downtown Oakland

‘Maureen’ stands across from Oakland School for the Arts in downtown Oakland on Nov. 15, 2022. A member of OSA’s first graduating class, she says staff took advantage of close relationships with students. Maureen married someone who taught at the school while she was a student.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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hen Maureen learned her former Oakland School for the Arts teacher was being investigated by police over allegations he sexually abused a student nearly two decades ago, she was terrified.

Maureen, 34, said the arrest of Jeremy Taylor brought back painful memories of what she believes were inappropriate relationships staff at the school developed with students — including the relationship she had with a teacher that led to their marriage seven years after she graduated.

According to a document provided by Maureen and reviewed by KQED, Maureen married Wesley Cayabyab, who worked at OSA while she was in high school, in 2013.

KQED is not using Maureen’s real name because she fears retaliation and harassment by the school.

Maureen, a member of OSA’s first graduating class, remembered how she and other students confided in Taylor while they were students.

Taylor was fired last February after an investigation by a firm hired by the school found a “preponderance of evidence” that he had a sexual relationship with a student. Prosecutors allege he sexually abused the student in 2005. Through his attorney, Taylor, who was arrested in May, has denied the allegations.

In December, the alleged victim filed a lawsuit against OSA and the Oakland Unified School District, claiming school officials “did nothing in response to obviously suspicious and dangerous behavior, allowing the abuse to continue and escalate in severity.”

OSA was founded in 2002 by then-Mayor Jerry Brown as part of his mission to open a charter school that provides a rigorous arts education. When the school opened on Alice Street near Oakland’s Civic Center neighborhood, turnover among staff was high, and former students say they were under tremendous pressure to protect the school’s image. The school, which serves more than 800 students in disciplines ranging from voice to dance, is now in the Fox Theater building, on Telegraph Avenue in Uptown Oakland.

Many alums have achieved success, including Zendaya and Angus Cloud, stars of HBO’s Euphoria, and the chart-topping pop and R&B singer Kehlani. But the school’s two-decade history has been marred by allegations of harassment and misconduct.

KQED obtained a copy of a report by Oppenheimer Investigations Group, which probed sexual abuse allegations against Taylor and included statements from former students who recounted a troubling environment at OSA, dating back to the school’s founding.

In reporting this story, KQED reviewed dozens of pages of documents, journal entries, yearbook pages, emails and screenshots related to the period — 2003 to 2006 — described in the investigation. In addition, KQED has reviewed records from subsequent years.

Maureen and former students who spoke with KQED described a culture that allowed for inappropriate relationships between staff and students. They want to prevent current students from experiencing similar treatment.

“If no one talks about the fact that that happened, then the school is able to really just continue to act as if issues surrounding sexual harassment and grooming at the school were isolated incidents,” Maureen, who divorced Cayabyab in 2018, said.

a hand is seen against a yearbook page focusing on a bald white teacher with glasses and a beard
A photo of Jeremy Taylor in a yearbook for Oakland School for the Arts. Taylor was fired in February 2022 following allegations he sexually abused a student. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Oppenheimer’s investigation referenced a marriage between a teacher and former student after the student graduated as an example of a culture at the school where boundaries were not enforced.

Maureen shared emails she said Cayabyab sent her over a 17-month period while she was a student. Cayabyab told Maureen she was attractive, called her “sweetheart” and described getting lunch with her and making her late for class.

“I reciprocate on the feeling of love: I love YOU, just not this country,” he allegedly wrote on Nov. 4, 2004, one day after George W. Bush claimed a reelection victory.

Steven Borg, an OSA spokesperson, said records show Cayabyab, 40, was a “technical theater teacher” from 2003–2005.

When reached for comment by text, Cayabyab, now a medical simulation specialist at Stanford University, according to his LinkedIn profile, responded, “Your sources have exaggerated the facts to make themselves look impeccable and want nothing more than to use me as a scapegoat.”

Taylor, the subject of the most recent investigation, taught economics, U.S. government and Advanced Placement psychology. In an email sent to OSA families in August, Mike Oz, the school’s executive director, wrote that no current employee “had any knowledge of allegations or instances of sexual misconduct, grooming or boundary crossing by Mr. Taylor prior to January 3rd, 2022.”

Taylor, 47, pleaded not guilty in December to committing a lewd act upon a child. His lawyer, Elizabeth Grossman, said the abuse allegations are a “total fabrication.” Recent OSA graduates said Taylor was popular on campus, and students had crushes on him, sharing memes of him online.

“The criminal case is a tragedy,” Grossman, a criminal defense attorney who specializes in disciplinary matters in schools and universities, according to her website, said by phone. “It’s an example of an excellent, dedicated teacher having his career ruined.”

In a statement in response to allegations of inappropriate behavior by former staff, including multiple allegations that have not been previously reported, Borg said current school leaders have “very limited insight” into incidents that occurred during the school’s infancy.

“[O]ur leadership team has aggressively worked to review archived records, discarded computer drives, spoken to witnesses and reviewed other sources to discern the truth,” he said. “Where we have conducted investigations that yielded credible information, we have taken action and cooperated with law enforcement. Every accusation or complaint, formal or not, receives immediate attention and is fully investigated.”

‘What was normal and what was not’

The Oppenheimer report describes a pattern of grooming behavior by Taylor, and a campus where leadership created “a culture of loose boundaries” that “likely enabled Taylor’s relationships with his students.”

A student whose account was included in the report told KQED that the ways other faculty at the school behaved with students made her relationship with Taylor seem normal. She attended OSA from 2003 to 2005, and asked not to be named over concerns that former OSA staff could threaten her legally for speaking out.

two hands are seen holding a yearbook with a title 'Our new home'
‘Maureen’ holds a yearbook from her time at Oakland School for the Arts. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“It was very apparent to me and my friends that there were teachers at our school that could possibly like students,” she said. “But looking back at it as an adult, you don’t hug a student and massage their back, and all these red flags, and [make] it look like a safe space.”

She remembered talking to Taylor about her personal life for hours on the phone. When rumors spread on campus that she had a sexual relationship with Taylor, she said school staff joked about it.

“It was more humiliating to have my teachers laugh and poke fun instead of calling my parents first and seeing if there was something going on,” she said.

Ten former students told KQED that Jason Miller, a founding faculty member, also behaved inappropriately or crossed personal boundaries with students. None of the former students alleged sexual abuse by Miller, who worked at OSA until 2007.

An alum who graduated in 2008 told KQED she frequently went out to eat with Miller alone while she was a student, and they called each other frequently. She asked not to be named because she fears retaliation from Miller, who, according to his LinkedIn bio, has been employed as a deputy legislative counsel in California’s Office of Legislative Counsel since December.

a young person with long dark hair stands with her back facing the camera in an orange sweater, in front of a school
An alum who graduated from OSA in 2008 said she often went out to eat alone with former teacher Jason Miller, a founding faculty member, and they called each other frequently while she was a student. She’s one of several alums who told KQED that Miller behaved inappropriately or crossed personal boundaries with students. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“He would hug me a lot, kiss me on my forehead, call me ‘sweetie,’ tell me he loved me,” she said. “There was a lot of ‘I love you,’ and that’s also part of OSA culture. At the time, it was almost normal for teachers and students to say ‘I love you’ to one another.”

She said after Miller took another job, she would leave school during lunch to intern at the theater company his wife founded in Antioch. He often drove her home and held her hand during the rides, she said. She shared emails with KQED from 2007 and 2008 where Miller wrote, “I love you” and “I miss you.”

Maureen said Miller once pulled her into his lap and would also kiss her forehead. She said he would call her beautiful and compliment her body. Alums said Miller was once a prominent figure at OSA who influenced students’ artistic futures.

Miller, 47, denied any “improprieties with any student or former student at any time” in a statement. In an interview, Miller said he did not recall holding a student’s hand during rides home, and when he did call students it was for professional or academic reasons. He said body image is always an issue for performing artists, and it would not have surprised him if he told a student she was a beautiful girl.

“The hugging, the nicknames — I would describe it as a top-of-a-head kiss, not a forehead kiss, in moments of triumph, moments of great excitement — I’m sure happened,” he said. “This was a school of huggers.”

a yearbook photo shows a white male teacher smiling and pointing
A photo of Jason Miller in an Oakland School for the Arts yearbook. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In recent years, according to Borg, Miller was on OSA’s “legal counsel team” that provided guidance on the school’s policies for Title IX, the law that protects students from sexual harassment and discrimination based on sex. OSA students walked out of class to protest the administration’s response to alleged sexual harassment by other students in September 2021.

After the protest, Miller spoke at an OSA board of directors meeting. He said he was working closely with staff to make sure the rights of all students were protected, and outlined the process for reporting incidents.

Borg said Miller stopped working on “OSA matters” in September 2022.

A revolving door of teachers

Former teachers who spoke with KQED about OSA’s early years recalled a dysfunctional environment. Teachers were young and inexperienced, and many did not stay long.

“It was one of the most unstable schools I ever [encountered] in my life,” recalled Bronwyn LaMay, who said she worked at OSA for less than a month in 2004.

a woman with long brown hair wearing a green overcoat poses in a park
Bronwyn LaMay poses for a portrait at Weekes Community Center Park in Hayward on Nov. 22, 2022. While working at OSA, LaMay said she felt ‘completely bullied, completely harassed by the entire administrative team.’ (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

LaMay, now director of the San José Area Writing Project and a lecturer at San José State University, said she reported another teacher whom she believes sexually harassed her to school administrators soon after she started the job. But she said she resigned when it was clear the school was not going to take any steps to protect her or take the complaint seriously.

“I just felt completely bullied, completely harassed by the entire administrative team,” said LaMay, 47. “It’s incredibly important how you talk to people, how you treat people, what kind of space you hold, the kind of norms you set, what kind of policies you do or don’t allow.”

Tim’m West worked at OSA from 2002 to 2004, teaching creative writing and literary arts. He developed close relationships with students and set his own boundaries. As an openly gay teacher aware of how homophobia has fueled false accusations of predatory behavior, he said he kept the door open when meeting with students. He believes policies like that should not have been left for individual teachers to set.

“There was a kind of warm, fuzzy, affectionate culture at OSA that I think would have been inappropriate in a lot of school contexts, and wasn’t appropriate then,” said West, 50. “The culture of silence around that — it could enable, very easily, people to abuse those boundaries.”

He said that after a slam poetry event, Loni Berry, the school’s first director, called him to his office and told West that hip-hop was not a real art.

“We were in Oakland, and kids were having to manage so much of what was going on without a lot of support,” said West, now executive director of the LGBTQ Institute in Atlanta. “Teachers were filling the gaps of that, and it was becoming a toxic culture.”

Efforts to reach Berry, who started a production company in Bangkok, were unsuccessful.

At least one administrator at OSA expressed concerns that Taylor was privately counseling students, according to the Oppenheimer report. And in 2005, the mother of the student allegedly sexually abused by Taylor complained to a school administrator about lengthy phone calls between Taylor and the student, according to the lawsuit filed by the former student.

The alleged victim described to investigators how she had large blocks of time when she could easily leave class and spend time with Taylor.

Taylor left OSA in 2006. He briefly taught in North Carolina before returning to OSA in 2007, according to the investigation.

Billie Jo-Grant, an expert in school employee sexual misconduct prevention, said it’s important for schools to examine the policies they had in place when older abuse allegations resurface.

“‘Were we providing training? What did we do when we hired someone? What did we do when a concern or a complaint came up? What was the messaging around harassment, misconduct?'” she said. “Those would be the areas I would look for in these older cases, peeling back the layers.”

In the summer of 2021, OSA students created the Student Safety Committee to push the school to address sexual harassment and assault on and off campus. The group organized a walkout in September of that year, demanding regular assemblies on sexual harassment and assault as well as improvements to the sexual education curriculum.

The school released a statement refuting most claims of sexual misconduct. Student organizers said the response from administrators left them feeling unsupported by the school and even more wary of reporting abuse.

The school and OSA administrators are also facing two lawsuits involving Black students who say they were falsely accused of sexual misconduct and that the school did not take steps to protect them.

Borg claims the school has improved the quality of training and procedures related to sexual harassment and assault, and updated its policy around responding to complaints since the walkout.

Nia Richardson, who graduated in 2020, hopes Taylor’s arrest is a wake-up call.

“OSA has a history of choosing to ignore problems, whether they be racial [or] sexual assault,” she said. “[We’ve] dealt with so many issues where we weren’t able to find comfort in staff or any authority. It’s been a pattern.”