When the news broke this week that the judge who sentenced former Stanford student and convicted sexual assailant Brock Turner to just six months would now work as a high school girls tennis coach, something of an explosion went off.
Alumni of Lynbrook High School wrote and reacted to outraged social posts about former Judge Aaron Persky’s hiring at the San Jose, California, school. Current students sent messages to Lynbrook officials. Thousands of people, including parents, signed Change.org petitions calling for Persky’s ouster. As one school employee in the area put it to VICE News, “If I had a daughter, I would not have felt comfortable with someone who has shown himself to have little respect for women.”
And by the end of Wednesday, Persky was out of the job. The Fremont Union High School District announced that Persky’s employment at Lynbrook “has ended.”
“We believe this outcome is in the best interest of our students and school community,” the district said in an emailed statement. “Please know that we are deeply committed to maintaining an effective, safe, and positive environment for all students.”
A spokesperson for the district declined to answer further questions, calling Persky’s hiring a “sensitive personnel issue,” and said it was unlikely that future statements would be forthcoming. In his own statement to San Jose Inside, Persky said he had been fired due to the district superintendent’s “desire to protect the players from the potentially intrusive media attention related to my hiring.” He also wished the players the best.
Several local teachers, parents, and Lynbrook alumni who spoke with VICE News asked for and applauded Persky’s ouster. But some say they still have questions — first and foremost, how and why was he hired in the first place?
When Sonya Mehta heard about Persky’s hiring, the Lynbrook graduate emailed the school’s principal, its board, and district superintendent’s office to object.
“He’s in a position of being a mandatory reporter and a coach and an adviser and a mentor. I just didn’t think that young girls would feel safe with him in that role,” Mehta, who now works in education policy in Oakland, told VICE News before Persky’s firing. “If something challenging were to come up and if you were in a position of having power over them and needed to be a trusted adult on that campus, I didn’t think he would be able to fulfill that role.”
But, even now that Persky is out of the job, “It feels a little bit like a hollow victory,” Mehta said. “I think the culture around the #MeToo movement has become, ‘Let’s just root out a few bad apples … and then we will be able to uproot this problem from our society.’ And I don’t really think that’s true.”
In 2016, Persky sentenced Brock Turner, an ex-swimmer for Stanford, to just six months in jail after Turner was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman recently identified as Chanel Miller. “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” said Persky, who was then a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge. “I think he will not be a danger to others.”
Persky’s light sentencing went viral when BuzzFeed News published a letter Miller had read in court. The letter’s searing account of the assault and Miller’s struggles to recover from it sparked a national scandal and, eventually, led Persky to become the first California judge to be recalled in more than 80 years. (Turner, meanwhile, was released after three months.)
The Fremont Union High School District said that it first became aware of Persky’s past late last week. He had applied for the coaching position over the summer and was a “qualified applicant for the position” given that he had attended multiple youth tennis coaching clinics and is rated highly by the United States Tennis Association, the district said in a Tuesday statement. Persky also passed a background check that involved undergoing fingerprinting.
School officials told San Jose Inside that Persky’s resume bore his full name, “Michael Aaron Persky.” That name reportedly didn’t raise any red flags.
In its statement, the district said it had also held a Monday meeting with parents on the JV and varsity girls tennis teams “in response to concerns from some members of our community.”
Lynbrook alum Surya Kundu, for one, wants more answers about that meeting and about the district’s entire hiring process. Initially, she was deeply troubled by Persky’s hiring, which she felt could send a “dangerous message.”
“The high school years are so formative in terms of your thoughts regarding consent and relationships and bodily autonomy,” said Kundu, who graduated from Lynbrook in 2005 and is now an attorney in Washington, D.C. “A lot of students look to their teachers and coaches for guidance on these kinds of matters, and the way teachers talk about these issues end up shaping the way that the students are going to conduct themselves in high school and then in college.”
Not everybody who spoke with VICE News is still worried about the case. Both of Ishita Goswami’s children have attended Lynbrook; one is still a student there.
Now that Persky is out, Goswami says she feels comfortable with how things turned out. She added, “I’m hopeful that the school has figured out it’s important to do a cursory background check.”
But in a Thursday interview, Kundu said that, like Mehta, Persky’s ouster left her feeling “hollow.” The school, she felt, was sweeping the issue under the rug rather than answering the community’s questions and grappling with questions about leniency.
“We have no idea what his attitude toward his job was and what he would have done in this role,” Kundu said. “And I think without knowing those things, it’s hard to feel any sort of way about it, because I don’t know if this is a sad story of somebody trying to do better being shut out of it.”
“We don’t know if it’s a story of public victory. We don’t know if it’s a story of mob justice.”
Cover: In this May 15, 2018 file photo, Judge Aaron Persky poses for photos in Los Altos Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)