How a southern California high-school shielded a beloved teacher who groomed students for sex
A sign on the Rosemead High School campus. (Christopher Vu for insiders)
Three former Rosemead High students have confirmed they have had sexual relations with Eric Burgess, the school's "golden boy."
School officials repeatedly missed opportunities to investigate allegations against Burgess, causing his behavior to persist for more than 20 years.
The county also obstructed insider reporting on Burgess and repeatedly denied its public record requests.
"Our librarian sent me this...it was a request from Matt Drange regarding: Eric Burgess," Rosemead director Brian Bristol wrote in an email to his boss. "How would you like us to deal with this?"
I knew it would be difficult to obtain documents for my investigation into my alma mater's dealings with teachers accused of sexual misconduct. But I didn't expect that requesting pictures of old yearbooks - copies of which can be easily found at the local library - would evoke a frantic response, including an email from the principal to the principal and instructions from campus staff to stop answering my calls.
The more I delved into Rosemead High's accounting for the behavior of their one-time "golden boy," English and journalism teacher Eric Burgess, the more school officials dug in their heels to obstruct my reporting. Word has gotten that I called teachers across campus in the summer of 2019, shortly after Burgess was suspended while county officials investigated his relationship with a former student. Many employees on campus told me they had been instructed not to speak to me.
Read more: He was my high school journalism teacher. Then I examined his relationships with teenage girls.
A few months earlier, after officers received a series of sexually explicit messages that Burgess exchanged with the former student, I asked District Superintendent Edward Zuniga if he thought the district had done everything possible to keep the students safe to ensure, among other issues. Emails show Zuniga tapped into an outside PR firm to create a canned response:
"This is a confidential personnel matter and the district does not comment on confidential personnel matters," Zuniga told me.
Yearbook photo by Eric Burgess. (Rosemead High School yearbook/Rebecca Zisser/Insider)
The secrecy surrounding Burgess increased when the county brought in an outside investigator, Lisa Strachan, to interview staff and alumni. Strachan's firm has come under scrutiny in the past for its tactics in sex abuse investigations at other Southern California schools, leading at least one person she contacted to ignore her calls. Meanwhile, the responses to my records requests became increasingly creative as the district's hired outside attorneys began to extend statutory exemptions at their discretion.
Attorneys specializing in access to public records who have reviewed the denials the school district sent me said the secrecy was outrageous. Among the records, which the district either denied me access to or claimed it did not possess, were disciplinary records from Burgess's personnel file -- including records from his first suspension on allegations that he was dating a student -- as well as all the other parts the district's 2019 investigation, which ultimately led to Burgess' resignation. Even after he was kicked out, district attorneys argued that "maintaining the confidentiality" of Burgess's records furthers "the interest of the public. Burgess' teaching license was revoked by the California Disciplinary Commission in 2021.
Other cases of abusive behavior have surfaced in the school district in recent years. In 2019, a Rosemead running coach went to jail for three years after pleading not to enter a competition for lewd acts with a student. The district paid $2 million to settle a case brought by another student at a nearby school after a teacher admitted molesting her. Other students filed a lawsuit shortly after, accusing the district of failing to protect them from teachers who exploited teenage girls.
The story goes on
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