By Brett Kelman (The Desert Sun)
March 22, 2017
PALM DESERT, Calif. – Cait, 10, a fourth grader at Lincoln Elementary School, was erasing the blackboard after class on a Friday afternoon when she was approached from behind by her teacher. He dropped his hands on her tiny shoulders, then slid them forward beneath her shirt. Cait froze in fear.
“Why haven’t you stayed after school in a while?” Robert Keith Bryan whispered in her ear, according to a police report. She felt his hands on the bare skin of her chest and his mouth on her neck.
Cait yanked free and ran out of the classroom. Tears streaked down her face as she sprinted to her home six blocks from the school, then burst into the kitchen and told her mother what had happened. Her father grabbed a baseball bat and marched back to the school. When he got there, Bryan was gone.
It was the winter of 1992. Cait was not the first little girl to tell on this teacher, and she would be far from the last. Over a 34-year career in Coachella Valley Unified and Desert Sands Unified schools, Bryan was allowed to continue teaching despite 15 students reporting him for inappropriate touching over five separate occasions. Bryan kept teaching until 2012, when he was arrested for touching eight more students, then resigned amid a police investigation that eventually sent him to prison.
Decades of abuse could have been prevented if school officials had done anything but leave Bryan in the classroom in the face of repeated accusations. Instead, Bryan moved from campus to campus as student complaints were doubted, buried, overlooked and eventually forgotten. The resulting lawsuits will likely cost millions, and the first trial starts in April.
“It is absolutely the school district’s fault,” said Cait, now an adult in her 30s, whose full name is being withheld because she is a victim of sexual assault. “Girls who never communicated with each other were saying the same thing. How does that become just us ‘telling a story?’"
"How many kids can make up the same story and it not be truth?”
To better understand the depth of failure by local school districts, The Desert Sun has studied more than 2,000 pages of documents, including Bryan's personnel files, detective’s notes, victim interviews and sworn depositions of 10 former or current school district employees, most of whom refused to be interviewed by a reporter.
Regardless, the findings of the Desert Sun investigation are clear: Desert Sands Unified had a chance to fire Bryan in the early '90s due to repeated complaints, but he kept his job because a district leader did not believe students were telling the truth. Over the next decade, all of the officials that knew about the complaints either left the district, retired or died. By the mid-2000s, a new generation of district leaders were unaware Bryan had a history of touching students. The evidence was still sitting in Bryan’s personnel file, but nobody bothered to read it.
If they had, this is what they would have found:
- Bryan was first accused of touching children while working for Coachella Valley Unified in 1985. When he resigned, the district agreed not to tell anyone about the allegations, then recommended him to other school districts, including Desert Sands, where he got a job.
- Bryan was investigated by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for touching 10 girls at Lincoln Elementary in 1992, but no charges were filed. Desert Sands also became aware of the prior allegation at Coachella Valley Unified, but left Bryan in the classroom anyway.
- Bryan was reprimanded again for touching another girl’s chest in March 1994.
- Six months later, in September 1994, Bryan was accused of reaching under a student’s t-shirt to rub her back. An investigation led to a 10-day suspension – the most serious discipline Bryan ever faced from the school district.
- In 2007, a male student reported Bryan was touching his female classmates on their lower backs and leaning over their desks to look down their shirts. It appears the district did not investigate. School staff recommended the boy go to therapy.
- Finally, in 2012, Bryan resigned after he was arrested for molesting eight girls, including the daughter of a police officer, in a single class at Gerald Ford Elementary School in Indian Wells.
One of those 2012 victims was the daughter of Kim, a protective single mother who had chosen Ford Elementary because of its reputation. Ford was one of the highest-testing schools in the safest city in what is widely considered the desert’s best school district.
Finally, Kim thought, this was a place she could trust.
“You can be mad at the criminal, the predator, because he’s the one who did this, but the scariest thing is that it happened in the school,” said Kim, whose full name is being withheld to protect her daughter’s identity. “I trusted the school district, and that’s who failed us.”
In an interview with The Desert Sun, Kim said her first impression of Bryan was that of a friendly, enthusiastic teacher and she was proud that her daughter appeared to be one of his favorite students. Bryan invited the girl to stay in his classroom during recess to be his “helper.” He snapped countless pictures of her for the "yearbook." He handpicked her for Spelling Club and Math Club. Nobody suspected anything.
And then, after the school year had ended, Kim got a call from a detective at the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. He had already interviewed several of Bryan's other students and had a dark theory as to why the teacher showered Kim’s daughter with attention. In police interviews and counseling, the girl said Bryan had molested her.
“Little by little, we found out what happened, and it was devastating,” Kim said. “He was a professional pedophile, he knew how to act to the kids, and he knew how to act to the parents. I think that’s how he fooled everybody.”
“But I think he got so used to doing it, he wasn’t careful anymore.”
Bryan, 64, refused to be interviewed for this story. When reached briefly on a phone at Corcoran State Prison, he said his crimes are "not what they’ve been blown up to be" but would not comment further.
Desert Sands Unified also refused to answer any questions. Coachella Valley Unified Interim Superintendent Juan Lopez said he was not familiar with Bryan's case but that he wasn't surprised by it. In the '70s and '80s, molestation complaints were not treated with the same seriousness as they are today, he said.
"It was a very different culture in schools and our country at that time," Lopez said. "I have no desire to defend how people dealt with it.”
Bryan grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, then attended University of California, San Diego and San Diego State University in the 1970s. His career in the desert began in 1978, when he took a job in Coachella Valley Unified. He spent six school years at Palm View Elementary and one year at Dateland Junior High, which is now known as Bobby Duke Middle School.
Bryan was first accused of touching students in September 1985, just as the new school year was starting. The existence of the complaint was confirmed by multiple sources but it is noticeably absent from the personnel records maintained by Coachella Valley Unified.
Instead, Bryan’s records show that he abruptly resigned, effective immediately, without explanation. The next day, the district sent Bryan a letter promising not to say anything bad about him as he searched for a new job in a different school district.
“I agree that there will be not information of a derogatory nature provided (to) any one or any agency at any time regarding Keith Bryan,” wrote Murray Southard, an associate superintendent. “Any reference provided by this department will refer to his teaching skills and be of positive nature.”
Five months later, Bryan applied for a teaching job in Chula Vista, south of San Diego. As promised, Coachella Valley Unified recommended Bryan as “above average” in every regard and did not mention he had been accused of touching students.
But Bryan wasn’t hired in Chula Vista. He took a job much closer to home.
A new start in Desert Sands
It was April 1986, and Lincoln Elementary needed a substitute. One of the fourth-grade teachers was out on stress leave, so Principal Larry Taylor went to Desert Sands Unified headquarters to find a replacement. As he leafed through sub applications, he spotted a name he knew – Robert Keith Bryan.
Taylor was alarmed. He had heard about Bryan being accused of touching students in Coachella Valley Unified and was surprised that Desert Sands would even consider him as a sub. Taylor called Coachella Valley Unified to learn more, but he was told the complaint against Bryan had been “retracted.”
“The district said he’s like anybody else, any other candidate,” Taylor said in a sworn deposition, recorded as part of a lawsuit. “And finding long-term subs at that time was not easy.”
This is how Bryan got his start in Desert Sands Unified, where he would work the next 27 years across four schools. He finished the school year at Lincoln as a sub and was hired as a full-time teacher in August 1986. Coachella Valley Unified verified his prior employment without mentioning any complaints.
It appears Bryan then worked at Lincoln without being reported until 1992, when he was accused of touching Cait, the fourth-grade girl at the blackboard.
In an interview with The Desert Sun, Cait said she realized something was wrong when Bryan slid his hand inside her shirt as she sat at her desk in the middle of class. She remembers recoiling with embarrassment, then watching as Bryan moved to the desk of another girl and did the same thing.
At recess later that day, a group of girls gathered to talk about Bryan. They had all been touched, they said, but were too scared or too uncertain to tell anyone. Cait wondered if it was all in her head.
A few days later, her fears were confirmed. Bryan invited Cait to stay after school as his “helper,” and she nervously agreed. He touched her and kissed her as she was cleaning the blackboard. She told her parents and the police, then switched schools and never returned to Bryan’s classroom.
“After that, we never talked about it again,” Cait said. “I wasn’t aware that anyone else spoke up.”
But they did speak up. In the resulting police investigation, 10 girls would say that Bryan touched them in some way – massaging shoulders, patting buttocks and rubbing their chests – sometimes underneath their clothing. Detectives shared those allegations with Desert Sands, who put an itemized list of victim’s statements in Bryan’s personnel file. Those records also show that Bryan confirmed to the district he was accused at Coachella Valley too, erasing any doubt that Desert Sands knew about the prior complaint.
Bryan was then put on paid leave while police investigated the case, according to an internal memo from Carol McGrew, who was the district’s assistant superintendent of personnel.
“If no charges are made, I feel the district is still obligated to investigate the situation to determine if Mr. Bryan’s conduct was unprofessional,” McGrew wrote in an internal memo to the district superintendent in February 1992.
Two months later, McGrew changed her mind. After the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges against Bryan, Desert Sands Unified decided not to conduct an investigation of its own, despite the fact that the district would not need to meet the same burden of proof to fire Bryan.
Instead, McGrew sent Bryan a letter telling him not to touch students.
If he did it again, he could be fired, she wrote.
It was an empty threat.
Bryan was accused of touching the chest of another girl at Lincoln less than two years later, in March 1994. Desert Sands sent him another letter with even weaker wording – stop his behavior or “disciplinary action may be taken.”
Six months after that, Bryan did it again. This time, a student complained that she was at recess when Bryan slid his hand beneath her shirt and rubbed her back. Four other girls said they had seen the touching, according to Desert Sands documents. An investigation was launched.
Bryan denied it all. In letters to the district, he said the girls were exaggerating, lying and conspiring against him, and described himself as a good teacher haunted by a bad reputation. Bryan said he “may” have touched the girl’s back during an incident on the playground, but said he was only trying to disburse a small group of students that gathered to gawk after one student hit another with a ball.
Bryan added that the girl who reported him could not be trusted because it was known at the school that she had been previously molested by another man.
“If and when my hand came into contact with her back, while I was disbursing the crowd of students, it meant more to her than me,” Bryan wrote. “Any touching that occurred that afternoon came because of my doing my job as a conscientious teacher and was exaggerated in (the student’s) mind.”
The investigation grew when Bryan confronted one of the student witnesses. According to school district documents, Bryan set up a scheme where one of the witnesses would be sent to his classroom under the pretense of delivering a computer mouse so he could question her. The girl later complained she had been “set up” and told the principal that she also felt uncomfortable about Bryan, who had rubbed her neck and shoulders during a prior school year.
Despite all of these allegations, Desert Sands never even broached the possibility of firing Bryan, according to Jackie Colarusso, who was principal of Lincoln Elementary at the time.
In a sworn deposition, Colarusso recalled a disciplinary meeting with Bryan where McGrew announced the district had no choice but to transfer him to another school. The possibility of firing Bryan or asking him to resign never came up, Colarusso said.
Colarusso didn’t know the full extent of the complaints against Bryan, but she believed his behavior wasn’t sexual. Bryan was just a touchy guy, she thought.
“He was the type of person that was – that didn’t understand boundaries with people,” Colarusso said in her deposition. “When he talked to you, he was, like, close to you. He made his point by touching you, you know, and he did that with staff members also. So I took it as part of his character.”
McGrew knew more. As the head of personnel, she was privy to the details of the police investigation into Bryan, and was aware that girls had accused him of rubbing their chests, butts and vaginas.
But she still didn’t believe it.
In her own deposition, McGrew admitted she didn’t think Bryan ever actually touched any of the students' private parts, despite what the girls had told police. She thought Bryan may have rubbed the girls' backs and shoulders but didn’t feel that was serious enough to get him fired.
Instead, she gave him a 10-day suspension and a transfer to a Kennedy Elementary School in Indio.
Breaking the chain
At Kennedy, the new teacher got a strange introduction.
Bryan was escorted to the school by McGrew herself, and they both met with the principal to establish ground rules. McGrew ordered Bryan never to be alone with students. She ordered him never to touch students. If kids were in his room, his door had to be kept open. She even made Bryan repeat the rules back to her, as if talking to a child.
The principal, Derrick Lawson, was unnerved. He knew nothing about Bryan.
“Is there anything else I need to know about this case?” Lawson asked McGrew.
“No,” McGrew responded, according to Lawson’s recollection in a court deposition. “All you need to know is … there were allegations made that we could not substantiate.”
Attorneys have described this moment as the most pivotal failure in Desert Sands's handling of the Bryan case. Instead of firing the teacher, the district moved him to another school and left the principal in the dark, breaking the chain of people who knew about the prior complaints. As Bryan switched schools again and again, his alarming reputation fell further behind him, until eventually it was gone.
"They passed him from school to school, and because the principals weren't told what had taken place, they treated him like any teacher," said David Ring, an attorney for several of Bryan's victims.
"If there was one teacher that a principal needed to know about, it was him."
At Kennedy, Bryan was still allowed to run a lunchtime club in his classroom, and while his door was kept open, the classroom windows were too high for a passerby to see inside. Lawson said he didn't know the full extent of the complaints against Bryan until he was interviewed by victim's attorneys in March.
If he had known, he would have watched Bryan more closely, both as a principal and as a father. His daughter was in Bryan's class.
"It was heart-wrenching to see the documents," said Lawson, who is now the principal of Indio High School, in an interview with The Desert Sun. "My first thought was, 'Did this happen to someone else who was under my care?'"
Bryan stayed at Kennedy until 1999, at which point the school downsized and a few teachers were transferred to nearby Johnson Elementary. He was there until 2006, when Bryan moved again to Ford Elementary – the high-testing school in affluent Indian Wells.
Complaints resurfaced in the first week of his second year.
This time, however, the allegations came from a boy. Luis Perez, a fourth-grader, said he had witnessed Bryan patting female students on the small of their backs and leaning forward to peek down the front of their shirts.
Perez was so unnerved that he refused to set foot in Bryan’s class. He told his mother what he had seen, and together they told the school principal. The school recommended Perez for a psychological evaluation, then set him up with weekly visits to a psychiatrist for the next two months.
“They didn’t believe me,” said Perez, now a young man, in an interview with The Desert Sun. “If they would have just listened to me, and looked more into the situation, they would have prevented four or five years of him molesting girls.”
If Desert Sands had investigated this complaint in 2007, one of the first things they would have done is look at Bryan's personnel records, discovering that Perez was the fifteenth student to accuse the teacher of inappropriate touching.
However, Theresa Kachiroubas, who was the Gerald Ford principal at the time, said in a deposition that she never looked at Bryan's personnel file. And Doris Wilson and John Gaffney, then district superintendent and assistant superintendent of personnel, said they were never told about the complaint. Wilson added that if the complaint had been substantiated there would be no reason to keep Bryan employed, considering his prior “pattern."
Instead, Bryan stayed put at Gerald Ford for another five years, until the spring of 2012, when he picked the victim who would finally put him behind bars.
Finally caught, decades later
The teacher was in the back of the classroom, sitting in a small blue chair at a computer, when a 10-year-old girl approached him with a question about a reading assignment. As they spoke, he reached out and touched her between the legs, rubbing the outside of her shorts.
“Good job,” he said, according to a police report, as if trying to distract the girl. “What are you reading?”
After three decades of touching children in desert schools, this was one of Bryan’s most brazen crimes. Not only was his classroom full of students, but his victim was the daughter of a police officer. Finally, Bryan had done something he would not escape.
The girl told her family what happened a few months later, in the middle of summer break. Her father reported Bryan to his superior officers a few days later. Within hours, the report had been forwarded all the way up the chain-of-command to the chief deputy for the eastern half of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
Two weeks later, the lead detective, Sgt. Michael Gaunt, had identified eight victims. Their allegations were basically the same as 20 years prior – Bryan was fondling the girls in his class.
Gaunt also went to Desert Sands headquarters, curious if Bryan had ever been accused before. He met with Assistant Superintendent Sherry Johnstone, the head of personnel, who said Desert Sands would hand over Bryan’s personnel records if police got a subpoena.
In the meantime, Johnstone agreed to peek inside the file to see if there was anything inside worth digging out. She thumbed through the pages, discovering the complaints against Bryan from the '90s.
“You should get a subpoena,” Johnstone told the detective. “Because there are things in here that you’ll want to see.”
Johnstone, who has since retired from Desert Sands, said she didn't know about Bryan's past until the moment she opened his file. But she felt the district's mistakes were obvious: Police should have been called to investigate the complaints in 1994 and 2007, and Bryan shouldn't have returned to the classroom without first being cleared by law enforcement.
“That’s what went wrong,” Johnstone said in an interview. “The mistake is that the police were not involved every time there was something reported.”
Three days after visiting district headquarters, police searched Bryan’s classroom, finding thousands of photos of students on his computer. Bryan took the photos under the guise of making a yearbook, but police noticed an alarming pattern: For every photo he took of a boy student, he took 15 photos of girls. Bryan was arrested two days later, as police raided his home in Palm Desert looking for more evidence.
At the police station, Gaunt laid out the evidence against Bryan. Multiple girls had accused Bryan of abuse, Gaunt said, and police knew about the complaints in 1992 and 1994.
“Sounds like I’m pretty screwed,” Bryan said, according to a police report.
Later in the interview, he began laughing, then crying, and brought up Cait, one of his 1992 victims, who he blamed for “trying to get (him) to touch her.”
Bryan was ultimately charged with 12 counts of lewd acts with a child as a felony and five counts of child molestation as a misdemeanor. After four years of pre-trial hearings, he pleaded guilty to four felonies and was sentenced to nine years in prison last July.
Taylor, the retired Lincoln principal who first hired Bryan back in 1985, read about the arrest and conviction in the newspaper. He knew Bryan had been accused again and again through the decades, but never heard the details.
“I was still surprised,” Taylor said in a deposition. “That’s not the Keith Bryan I thought I knew.”
Today, Desert Sands is facing four lawsuits from Bryan's victims, a fifth suit has been settled for $650,000 and another victim has started litigation against Coachella Valley Unified. Two high-powered Los Angeles law firms, Geragos & Geragos and Taylor & Ring, are competing for clients and in discussion with a dozen more victims, all of whom are expected to file sometime in the next year or two.
Many of those girls come from Ford Elementary, where in addition to his fourth-grade class, Bryan led math, spelling and yearbook clubs. Bryan handpicked the students in these clubs, choosing which girls he wanted to groom for abuse, said Ben Meiselas, one of the attorneys on the case.
"That’s what really makes this case stand out in its outrageousness,” Meiselas said. "If you know you have these issues with the teacher, you don’t make him the head of the yearbook club and the head of the math club, where he can pick the little girls he gets to be alone with."
Desert Sands Unified leaders refused to be interviewed for this story, continuing years of silence about Bryan. Desert Sands has never answered any questions about the pedophile teacher and it is not known what, if anything, has been done to prevent the district from repeating its mistakes.
District spokeswoman Mary Perry issued a brief statement saying Desert Sands has safeguards and training in place to "assure appropriate interaction between staff and students." Safeguards and training were used when Bryan was employed too.