Former judge in Brock Turner case getting hired as LHS JV tennis coach causes national stir

Hannah Lee
Oct 15 · 14 min read

By Shuvi Jha, Hannah Lee, Stuti Upadhyay

Recalled judge Aaron Persky, who presided over the 2015 People v. Turner case sentencing Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner to six months in prison for the sexual assault of an unconscious woman, was hired as the JV girls tennis coach at Lynbrook HS over the summer. News of his hiring spread across the community, prompting the Fremont Union High School District (FUHSD) administration— which claimed to be unaware of Persky’s background at the time of the hiring — to publicly address the issue. Although Persky is no longer coaching as of Sept. 11, his hiring and subsequent firing sparked controversy and conversation that extended far beyond the Cupertino community. Read the full story to explore the different reactions, perspectives and beliefs surrounding the situation.

*For the purpose of maintaining her anonymity, we will refer to a LHS student as Mackenzie.


Persky’s History

Graphic by Hannah Lee

Timeline


In an emergency staff meeting, district officials told LHS staff members that they had been unaware of Persky’s past affiliation with the Santa Clara Superior Court. According to his job application, however, Persky explicitly stated his judicial background. El Estoque obtained this information through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Screenshot of article from LHS’ The Epic
Persky’s job application obtained from FOIA request

General Reaction

After news of the District’s decision to move forward with Persky’s hiring broke on Sept. 10, community members — including students, alumni, educators and parents — reignited the debate on rape culture and student welfare that had originally surrounded Persky’s recall campaign. Articles from local news organizations like The Mercury News, CBS San Francisco and San Francisco Chronicle circulated across social media platforms, prompting widespread reactions from both supporters and opposers of Persky’s hiring.

Lynbrook alumna Neha Palvai was nonchalantly scrolling through Instagram when she came across an article detailing Persky’s hire at LHS. After finding out that Persky would be in a position of authority at her alma mater, Palvai was compelled to take action.

Within a day, she created a Change.org petition demanding Persky’s dismissal. Her petition, along with a similar Change.org petition, gained a total of 4,562 signatures from the community by the end of both campaigns. Both petitions doubted Persky’s ability to act as a mandated reporter for harassment — a responsibility bestowed upon all public school employees — and abuse due to his ruling in the Brock Turner case and subsequent recall.

“Hiring Persky devalues everything that survivor Chanel Miller went through — her words, her situation, her bravery and courage,” Palvai said. “I think that it’s an absolute slap in her face, and a slap to sexual assault survivors everywhere for being so brave to come forward and then [having] the person who was complicit in this sort of situation come back.”

Palvai’s decision to launch the petition stemmed from multiple past experiences, including her memories of living in India. She was attending an international school in India when the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case took place. Palvai witnessed her own nation reel from the violence, mutilation and death of a young woman who was gang-raped while traveling on a bus with a male companion. These formative experiences motivated Palvai to immerse herself in women’s rights and activism, and are the very reason why she simply could not tolerate “an event of a similar nature” taking place at her high school.

While Palvai is grateful for the support she received — whether in the form of signatures, compliments or personal messages — she also says she received some negative reactions.

One person sent her a direct message on Instagram, stating: “People are like, [Persky] has no empathy, and I’m like, ‘What the f*** is this double standard? What the f*** is this double standard you guys are holding?’ The man literally lost his whole career path because of some decision he made. And now some f***ing social justice warriors at a high school [are] blocking [him] from getting any job whatsoever. I looked it up; he owes something like 135K in legal debt. So he’s gotta get a job somewhere to pay that shit off. And he can’t even get a f***ing part time job as a coach at the high school. What the f***?”

Other community members, including LHS senior and Varsity girls tennis captain Linda Goh, share the belief that Persky’s firing was unmerited. Goh perceived the community’s response as an overreaction to the event, believing that people were unfairly conflating Persky’s judicial ruling with his character. As far as his behavior on the tennis court goes, Goh says Persky was a reasonable person; in fact, not one person on both the JV or Varsity tennis team had any complaints against him as a coach, according to Goh.

“I have talked to him a couple of times about uniforms and other tennis-related things,” Goh said. “And I’m not saying I can judge his character based on our conversations, but to me he was respectful and he was kind.”

Through conversations with students at LHS as well as interactions online, Goh soon realized she held the minority opinion. Those around her strongly believed that by hiring Persky, LHS was sending the message that it didn’t support sexual assault victims. The creation of the two Change.org petitions only further emphasized this belief — one that Goh thought lacked the tennis team members’ opinions. This lack of representation compelled Goh to publicly advocate her opinion via Instagram story.

“I understand it’s pretty risky to post about it because the majority has opposing views, but I felt like the JV team mostly consists of freshmen and sophomores who are scared to post or feel like they don’t have a position of authority,” Goh said. “Since I am the captain of the Varsity team, I felt like it was my job to take action and post about how I feel.”

Goh’s post received mixed reactions, with some applauding her bravery and others condemning her belief. According to Goh, this unwillingness to engage in a logical, reason-based conversation was representative of LHS community’s response to Persky’s hiring. On one end of the spectrum were individuals who viewed Persky’s hiring as an extension and enablement of rape culture on school campuses, and on the other were individuals who viewed Persky as merely a coach and judged his character on his abilities to teach tennis as separate from his judicial career.


Goh’s Instagram Story

Photo by Linda Goh || Used with permission

Pro-Persky

Like Goh, Mackenzie feels that the LHS community’s reaction to Persky’s hiring was unreasonable. While Mackenzie opposes Persky’s decision in the 2015 People v. Turner case and recognizes the message sent as a result of the ruling, she believes that Persky’s actions as a judge were taken out of context — she says his decisions in court should not be associated with his qualifications to serve as a coach.

“I find it overly simplistic to believe that these young people’s morals, or their values would somehow be significantly shaped by his position as their coach,” Mackenzie said. “I think we’re all mature enough to handle this case, and we’re all mature enough to understand the situation. So I think it’s taking it too far to assume that the tennis players’ identities or values would be really negatively impacted by his position.”

Mackenzie sees a clear difference between serving as a judge and a coach. As a former judge, Persky had the power to set legal precedents; his rulings directly impacted the community. However, as a coach, Persky’s job is more practical — he holds practices, mentors tennis players and improves players’ form. According to Mackenzie, none of these aspects of coaching involve a person’s moral integrity, and as such, it is unfair to propose that Persky will negatively influence the tennis team’s morals in some manner.

Furthermore, Mackenzie believes that the community is unfairly holding Persky to a rigid moral standard. She says that community members should not expect Persky to be a perfectly “honorable and respectable person” when other teachers are not closely examined for those same values.

“There are [pro] Trump teachers who support Trump, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve made a case for them to be removed from their position,” Mackenzie said. “It’s obvious that many and almost all of our teachers have different political views and different values. But the difference is that [Persky] was just in a position where [his values] would be publicly displayed for the community to judge.”

Goh also explains that community members acted on their own personal emotions rather than taking into consideration the perspectives of the JV team.

“Out of all people in our school, the JV team should have the most [voice] seeing this situation because they are the most affected by this matter,” Goh said. “And every day, for every practice and every game they’re are the ones who are with him, and they have to talk to him or see him. But their opinions were neglected.”

Beyond the lack of representation, however, Mackenzie adds that the conversation regarding Persky is one-sided: only the voices of those against Persky were being heard.

“It disappoints me to see that a topic so controversial is being so widely debated from one side,” Mackenzie said. “And the fact that there hasn’t been much thoughtful discussion on it in our community really shows that people aren’t willing to let their views go. People aren’t willing to have a thoughtful debate and that’s what saddens me. To see everyone turn to the tide made me feel like there has to be a voice of reason speaking out, [one that] isn’t just hopping on the bandwagon.”

Mackenzie agrees that it might be difficult for a female tennis player to confide in a male coach, especially given Persky’s background. However, she does not think this potential setback is a strong enough reason to justify Persky’s removal.

“I think we have other resources on campus and people have closer mentors that they would likely turn to,” Mackenzie said. “I can see [the gender issue] posing a problem, but I don’t think it would impact [the JV team] so greatly to the point where they have no one to turn to for help.”

Mackenzie and Goh are hoping community members will consider listening rather than being so quick to condemn.

“I think a lot of people are confusing our opinions with the support of the ruling or the case,” Goh said. “Yes, it’s the same person who made the decision, but it doesn’t mean that [his judicial background] should have to do with his career choice or his position as a coach. Obviously, I felt for Chanel Miller — I read her statement and I was in tears because I understood the trauma she went through. But to me, my sentiment with her doesn’t conflict with my sentiment for the coach.”


Anti-Persky

However, others like Palvai and MVHS English teacher Kate Evard believe that hiring Persky was a mistake, contending that the former judge should have been removed as soon as his background was revealed.

When Evard first heard about the news, she was in a state of both disbelief and anger. She believes Persky’s background made him unfit to serve as both a coach and mentor to young girls because a coach should be an adult figure students are comfortable with and can trust.

“Any coach is going to be a mandated reporter,” Evard said. “And what girl is going to be comfortable telling Aaron Persky that they’ve been affected by any kind of assault on campus, or otherwise?”

Palvai agrees with Evard, claiming that Persky’s past judicial decisions reflect poorly on his ability to be a mandated reporter, therefore posing a safety threat. Although Palvai believes that Persky shouldn’t be made a social pariah because of his judicial rulings, giving him a role as a high school girls tennis coach was insensitive and disrespectful to sexual assault survivors.

“The reason why the Brock Turner case blew up to the extent that it did wasn’t because of Brock Turner,” Palvai said. “It was because of Judge Persky. Everyone was pissed off because of the [six] month sentence, so let’s take a second to look at the root of the entire media portrayal and the media focus on the case — and it was all [a] result of Judge Persky.”

At the same time, Palvai recognizes the opposing perspective and understands that Persky’s removal posed an inconvenience to the JV tennis team. However, after receiving several complaints from LHS students who commented that Palvai was overlooking Persky’s importance to the tennis team, she believes that it’s important for the tennis players to keep things in perspective.

“If JV tennis is truly your life’s calling and the passion of your life, you can very much so play on the club teams externally,” Palvai said. “I know that I don’t want to assume anyone’s socioeconomic status but I know that the overall socioeconomic level of [LHS] is pretty high. I know that parents who care about education and care about awards and accolades as much as they do as much as the students claim they do can find alternative opportunities.”

Similarly, Evard explains that she is sorry that the girls JV tennis team had to go through this entire ordeal, and she encourages them to speak out about their own feelings. She adds that as an educator, her greatest motivation to push for Persky’s removal is students’ safety and well-being, be it physical or mental.

“We can’t say one thing and do another,” Evard said. “Here, what’s the message? What’s the message that we’re all going to get, especially the girls, that we made a mistake and we can’t undo it. Is it really our priority to make sure our kids are protected?”

Palvai echoes Evard’s sentiment — although she recognizes the various perspectives and beliefs, Perky’s removal was necessary in her opinion.

“To the girls tennis team? I’m sorry,” Palvai said. “FUHSD will find you another coach. And if they don’t, I’m sure that there [are] other avenues to play tennis. I truly am sorry to the members of the Lynbrook community. To those who supported me, thank you so much. That means a lot to me and it’s very telling of your character, your morals and your values. To those who didn’t support me, I highly recommend reading BuzzFeed’s article — the 7,000-word testimony released by Chanel Miller. And if you still disagree with me after reading that article, I would love to hear from you. As usual, people have bombarded my Instagram DMs, and I know that there will be tons more, and I’m fine to talk about it. But if you haven’t read that 7,000-word testimony, then I don’t think you’re in power to comment on the situation.”


Admin

Despite the community’s varying perspectives on Persky’ hiring, many agree that the FUHSD district administration did not handle the situation appropriately.

When Evard first heard the news, she couldn’t believe the district had made a “hiring blunder of such magnitude.” Although she recognizes that Persky allegedly applied with a slightly different name, Evard believes there is no excuse or justification for hiring someone without fully understanding their background.

“I only know that the explanation has been that they didn’t know it was him because he used his legal first name, which is Michael,” Evard said. “Once again, don’t we Google people? Don’t we do any kind of vetting? How is it that we’re not more careful with hiring people that are going to be in contact with kids — girls, especially?”

According to Director of Human Resources Paula Robinson, the District employs a strict hiring process for every employee, be it an administrator, teacher, other staff member, coach or volunteer.

In an email, she explains that “when a vacancy for a coach arises, the school notifies the Human Resources (HR) Department who then posts the position for a minimum of five days on an educational employment website called EdJoin. Candidates who are interested in the position submit applications via Edjoin. After the posting closes, the school site, in consultation with the HR Department, reviews the applicant pool and shortlists candidates to interview. An interview panel is formed made up of people in various positions. Interviews are held at the sites and finalists are selected. References are then checked and one candidate is recommended for hire. The HR department then approves the selection and processes the chosen candidate for clearance to become a coach.”

Robinson believes that the separate components of this procedure — the initial selection process, interview process, fingerprinting process and reference checking process — all work together to vet candidates successfully.

But Goh holds a different view, claiming that the district’s hiring process is flawed and inefficient since it allowed Persky’s hire to happen despite clear knowledge of his judicial background. However, she also asserts that the hiring process is only part of the problem; she believes the district officials also did a poor job of dealing with community reactions and accounting for the views of the JV team after the hiring. While she acknowledges that the replacement coach is doing all he can to help the team, Goh wishes the district hired a professional tennis coach instead.

“The fact that [admin] hired the badminton coach [as a replacement] basically went against their email saying that they’re trying to help [the JV tennis team] have a successful season,” Goh said.

For Palvai, the admin’s shortcomings extend far beyond the JV tennis team — the entire incident demonstrates that FUHSD’s priorities do not always lie with its students. In fact, while attending LHS, Palvai struggled with her mental health and had difficulty finding resources to help. Because of her past experiences in FUHSD, when she first heard the news of Persky’s hiring, she was shocked but not surprised.

“I do think that FUHSD overall loves to prioritize awards and accolades over their students’ mental, physical and emotional health and wellbeing,” Palvai said. “So, of course, he has great accolades and recommendations from the [United States Tennis Association] — or whatever his track record in tennis may be — but that doesn’t make him a good coach, a good mentor or a good member of the FUHSD staff.”

FUHSD superintendent Polly Bove finds this comment extremely concerning. She explains that when hiring, the FUHSD’s primary focus is finding the best employees for students and their health. And while the FUHSD schools do receive many awards, Bove explains that this is in no way a priority for the district.

“We know that we, as a District, are not perfect,” Bove said. “But we strive to continuously improve and genuinely appreciate and seek out feedback from our school community. If there are concerns about the ways in which our district is addressing the wellbeing of our students, I hope that these concerns can be shared with members of our administrative staff, including me. The wellbeing and safety of our students is always our top priority and our staff works diligently to ensure that all students have access to the personal, social-emotional and academic support they need to flourish and succeed in our schools.”

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