The Oak Leaf

UPDATE: college investigates misconduct, accuser speaks out

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SRJC religious studies instructor and president of the Academic Senate, Eric Thompson was accused of sexual misconduct in the '90s.

SRJC religious studies instructor and president of the Academic Senate, Eric Thompson was accused of sexual misconduct in the '90s.

Courtesy of https://profiles.santarosa.edu/eric-thompson

Courtesy of https://profiles.santarosa.edu/eric-thompson

SRJC religious studies instructor and president of the Academic Senate, Eric Thompson was accused of sexual misconduct in the '90s.

Brandon McCapes and James Wyatt

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Eric Thompson, full-time instructor and Academic Senate president at Santa Rosa Junior College, denied an accuser’s allegations of decades-old sexual assault that she made in a Nov. 15 public Facebook post.

He is on voluntary leave from the institution while the college investigates claims that he had an affair with his underage student while teaching at Ursuline High School in the mid ‘90s.

Sarah Chavez, 39, alleged Thompson had a sexual relationship with her for two years while she attended the now-defunct all-girls Catholic school, where he worked as a drama teacher. The abuse happened from approximately 1993-95, beginning when Chavez was 16 and ending when she was 18, she said.

In an email to The Oak Leaf, Thompson said, “Anyone who knows me well knows that the accusations are foreign to all of my behavior. I have never sexually assaulted, molested, preyed upon, or harassed anyone in my life. Not once.” Thompson said he would not comment at length due to the ongoing investigation.

“It would be inappropriate, and a mockery of the due process, for me to air a detailed response to the accusations in the press beforehand,” Thompson said. “I have been accused of something that happened more than 20 years ago. The college, primarily because of the alarming language that the accuser has used and the public nature of the story, asked me to go on paid leave until an investigation is conducted. I agreed, as is appropriate, to say nothing about this case until after the investigation is complete.”

Thompson has taught religious studies and humanities at Santa Rosa Junior College since 1992 and has been a full-time faculty member since 2001. During this time, he won awards including the SRJC Academic Senate President’s Award for Outstanding Contributions in Leadership in 2010 and the Tauzer Lectureship in recognition of Teaching Excellence in 2011.

Years after the alleged misconduct, Chavez attended SRJC before transferring to UCLA.

In an interview with The Oak Leaf, Chavez said Thompson began to groom her when he was her drama instructor and they participated in a production of “Romeo & Juliet” over the summer in Sonoma.

“That was kind of how our relationship started outside of school,” Chavez said. “We would drive together everyday and he was responsible for me. We’d go to cast parties and he offered me alcohol and drugs.”

According to Chavez, her parents confronted Thompson before the relationship turned sexual and told him to stop seeing their daughter. Her father, Mike Chavez, confirmed this event.

Chavez said she continued to see Thompson in secret, despite her parents’ objections, and after she turned 16, the relationship became sexual.

“I really felt that he groomed me by giving me alcohol and drugs and getting me to trust him. When the conversation turned to sex, all of that became normalized. At the time, I felt sort of special that this teacher I looked up to was paying attention to me.”

At the end of her junior year, Chavez said she dropped out of high school, partly because of the emotional turmoil caused by her relationship with Thompson.

“It started to cause a lot of problems in my life because it was secretive and you know, I couldn’t tell anybody,” Chavez said. “School just became a joke to me and so did adults, and I started to behave in a way that reflected that—that none of that really mattered. After that I harbored a lot of shame and pain and suffered for many years.”

The relationship between Chavez and Thompson ended when she was 18. After spending a year in Washington, Chavez returned to Santa Rosa and, with her parents, told the principal of Ursuline High School about the affair.

“I made an appointment with the principal and told her that this was going on and it was inappropriate and we wanted him fired and we wanted her tuition back for that year,” Mike Chavez said. “She agreed that he needed to be fired, and she gave me a check.”

The Oak Leaf reached out to former Ursuline High School principal, Sr. Diane Baumunk, who confirmed Thompson’s employment at the all-girls school. She questioned the need to dig up “ancient history,” and declined to comment any further. 

Mike Chavez said they didn’t go to the police because Sarah didn’t want to.

“She indicated that she didn’t want to go further with it at the time because of embarrassment,” he said. “Today it would probably be different but she was young back then, and I don’t know, we just didn’t.”

In a comment on Chavez’s Facebook post, a woman named Lauren Parnes said she worked at Ursuline High School at the time of the assault.

“As a teacher at the school at the time, and someone who also spent time with Eric and his friends outside of work, I will say two things: One, I absolutely believe you,” Parnes said. “Two, I feel terrible that I did not trust my instincts more and see what was right in front of me and help you.”

Faith Harrison, a friend of Chavez’s when she attended SRJC in the late ‘90s, said Chavez wasn’t negative about Thompson at that time.

“She didn’t say he was this horrible person that did this thing to her; she just told me the facts,” Harrison said. “Even though she defended it at the beginning, I don’t think that should have any bearing on it. She was convinced that this was normal by him and bought into it for a long time. I think through therapy she realized that it wasn’t normal.”

More than a decade after the relationship, Chavez said she began therapy to address the problems this relationship had contributed to in her life.

“Therapy was a long process of really accepting and realizing that I was a child and didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “I felt so bad because this person I had trusted had really taken advantage of me and taken away my social network and school. What I really became was a sexual object.”

Chavez said the current cultural climate started by the #metoo movement inspired her to speak out publicly.

“Given that so many other women, so many other people, have come forward about sexual assault, I wanted to let people know,” she said. “I tried so many times before and people weren’t really outraged by it, and that was really painful. I decided to do something about it because I have two daughters now and I want to be the kind of person that stands up and says, ‘That’s wrong—you can’t do that.’”

Dr. Frank Chong, president of SRJC, said the college hired an independent investigator to look into the allegations.

“We take the allegations seriously, and we’re doing everything we can to find out what’s going on,” Chong said.

On Dec. 7, following the publication of a version of this article online, Dr. Chong sent an all-staff email regarding the allegations against Thompson.

“We are investigating this sensitive and difficult matter,” Chong said in the email. “We are also asking the SRJC community to be respectful of all involved parties and allow the due process to proceed in an appropriate manner.” In the email, Chong mentioned Thompson by name.

The All Faculty Association (AFA) sent an email to the SRJC community in response to Chong’s email. The AFA, which is in heated negotiations with the administration, said Chong violated the AFA/District Contract with regard to Thompson’s privacy.

Section 31.07 of the contract says, “The District will not use the SRJC email system for confidential communications to the faculty, such as those related to disciplinary action.”

AFA is filing a grievance against the administration. The email said, “We see this as a violation of one faculty member’s confidentiality and privacy protections as a violation of every faculty member’s appropriate expectation that the District will honor existing confidentiality and privacy protections.”

On Dec. 12, a former student of Thompson’s, Brianna Hanson, defended him in an email to The Oak Leaf that she also posted publicly on her Facebook page.

“He has, without question, been the best teacher I’ve ever had, my most supportive academic cheerleader and a good friend and sounding board whenever I’ve needed one,” Hanson said.

“While I cannot speak to anyone else’s experiences, I cannot reconcile what I’m reading and hearing with the Professor Thompson I have known for well over 10 years.”

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UPDATE: college investigates misconduct, accuser speaks out