The flags outside City Hall sat at half-mast Tuesday night; inside the Council Chambers, the Santa Clara City Council took their seats on the dais, the black name plates with each member’s name etched into them, as they always are, situated in front of them.
All except one. The placard between Council Members Patricia Mahan and Teresa O’Neill was blank. Up until Tuesday, the placard had belonged to Dominic Caserta, a 12-year veteran on the dais and high school civics teacher.
However, amid allegations of sexual harassment, some even coming from his students, Caserta resigned from the Council Tuesday and announced that he would halt his bid for the District 4 Supervisor seat currently held by Ken Yeager, for which he was one of the frontrunners.
Following the allegations, the City urged any other victims to come forward. Since then, several other young women have contacted police. Further, Caserta’s SCUSD personnel file was leaked to the press and emailed to 1,600 district employees, showing that his conduct with students has been an issue since the early 2000s.
Although Caserta’s resignation made much of Tuesday night’s discussion of a censure policy irrelevant, Mayor Lisa Gillmor said the item, which she requested be added to the agenda, was a much about hearing comments from the public, who turned out in droves, filling the Council Chambers nearly to capacity. Gillmor called Caserta’s alleged actions a “terrible stain on the City.”
Lydia Junkind, a 19-year-old German exchange student and one of Caserta’s campaign volunteers, went public last week, claiming Caserta groped her thighs and hips, kissed her cheeks and gave her unwelcomed massages.
“I assumed I had no other choice than to play along,” she said Tuesday night at the meeting. “Mr. Caserta always managed to take my voice away from me … Dominic Caserta knew for a fact I was vulnerable. I am not an American citizen … This man thinks he is invincible. I hope he has to face criminal charges.”
Savannah Nunez, another student of Caserta’s, said she filed two complaints with the school against him in 2006-07. She said Caserta would regularly call her cell phone and make sexual remarks. He even showed up to her home once, she claimed.
She later scoffed at the Council promises to “do better.”
“You guys have all known for years. Now it’s time for us to trust you?” Nunez said. “I don’t trust you.”
O’Neill served on the Santa Clara Unified School District Board from 1998 to 2006.
In a statement released Tuesday, Caserta wrote that “political adversaries are motivated to discredit [his] candidacy,” making reference to the timing of the allegations. He called the ensuing fallout a “social media circus,” adding that those allegations are “false in every sense of the word.” He wrote that over the next few months, the allegations against him will be “put to the test and [his] name will be cleared.”
“I have been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion without due process or recognition of my distinguished service to the school,” he wrote.
However, many were keen to label Caserta’s alleged actions as “disgusting,” often conflating the allegations of sexual harassment with what they call “bullying.” Caserta, a political opponent of Mayor Gillmor and her cadre of loyalists, regularly criticised and disagreed with Gillmor.
Shaunn Cartwright, with Daughters Over Dollars, called Caserta a “tempermental time bomb” and a “pedophile,” saying that he had been allowed to keep his job and gone unchecked because of a “lackadaisical” school system.
Tamara Pantic, one of Caserta’s former students, said Caserta was prone to outbursts, calling her “disgusting” and “despicable” because she attempted to film something in class. After that, she said she was so “racked with anxiety” she had to begin taking antacids just to attend his class. She said he regularly railed about his colleagues on City Council, bragged how he is a “lobbyist” for the 49ers and fostered an environment of “brown-nosing.”
“He loved to play favorites,” Pantic said. “He has never been fit for public office … [he is in] no way fit to shape young minds.”
Saskia Faein, a local real estate agent, said many were afraid to speak at Council meetings because of the way Caserta conducted himself. She said “complaints are not being heard.”
Concerns over how to handle filling Caserta’s seat began to stir.
Mahan, who was often aligned with Caserta politically, said the Council should not appoint someone, as is detailed in the City Charter. Instead, she said the Council should let the voters decide.
“Five people should not decide the future of this City,” she said.
After Gillmor’s appointment to Mayor, the Council appointed Vice Mayor Kathy Watanabe to her Council seat until the 2016 election. Watanabe won her campaign.
Because of the number of public speakers on the item, with the exception of a few minor items and the consent calendar, the Council continued most of the agenda to a later date. The Council will meet again 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 22 in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 1500 Warburton Ave. in Santa Clara