by Lukas Carbone and Jessica Hill
The content of this article contains sensitive material, some of which may be graphic. Please be cautious as you proceed to read this article.
Teacher, father, felon. Those are the words describing Michael Bartel, a former science teacher at WCI arrested in November 2017 and convicted in September 2018 for possessing child pornography and sexual relations with minors under the age of 10 years old.
Following Bartel’s arrest, the Walnut Creek community — including former students of Bartel’s and their parents — grew increasingly distrustful of teachers and other adults. Mother of two of Bartel’s former students, Lauren Ross, doesn’t think her “relationships with my children’s teachers have changed per se,” but her children grew “less trusting of their teachers” and are now “more wary of being alone with adults.” According to Bartel’s former student, sophomore Alexandra Osorio, Bartel’s arrest “started to make me question my other teachers and what they could be hiding… if I see a teacher pat someone, I get [more]… suspicious… [then] I used to.” According to Las Lomas English teacher Lisa Rigisich, “we want students to feel safe with all the adults on campus, and I don’t know for a fact, but I would expect that something like this happens and students, especially those who had a teacher who was later arrested, are going to say ‘Gosh, I felt safe in that class. Now I know I maybe shouldn’t have. Now I’m a little bit afraid, a little bit suspicious, a little bit wary.’”
Sophomore Raghaav Thirumaligai, brother of a former Bartel student and former member of the Kerbal Space Club (a group of students meeting in Bartel’s room after school to play the game Kerbal Space Program for one hour every Thursday from 2016 to 2017) sharply disagreed. Thirumaligai noted, “the probability of me having to worry about [sexual abuse] would be infinitesimal,” said his “relationships with have not changed with any of [his] teachers, or teachers in general.” Sophomore Jacob Yousif, a former Kerbal Space Club member concurred; he “[hasn’t] altered any of [his] relationships with teachers because of the arrest,” and because he “didn’t know him personally,” he “wasn’t that affected by his arrest.”
Sophomore Vaughn Zayeer, Bartel’s former student and a Kerbal Space Club member, has “since second-guessed how well I think I know someone, especially someone like a teacher, and what could possibly be going on in their private lives,” but noted, “[most] teachers are completely normal and friendly people.”
Osorio emphasized her shock following Bartel’s arrest, stating he “looked like a normal dude. He acted like a normal teacher,” and she was “very surprised because he seemed like such an average teacher. I never got the notion that something might be off with him, ever.” She described Bartel as “my favorite teacher at the time.” Zayeer agreed. He “liked Mr. Bartel”, calling him “laid-back.” However, Osorio stated, “[Bartel] wouldn’t talk to you unless you talked to him… if you asked him a question, he’d answer, but… he was kind of shut off from the rest of the class… [and] he had almost zero connection with his students.” Zayeer agreed; standing out were Bartel’s “ social awkwardness and hands-off approach to teaching.” He would “sometimes stutter in his speech, and avoid direct eye contact during conversations,” and his “teaching style was easy, but almost… seemed lazy.” However, Zayeer liked this. “His awkwardness also made him seem more genuine to the students, compared to some of the other teachers at the school…[and] there was no shortage of social anxiety at WCI, so this was nothing out of the ordinary.” He was “grateful not to have a stressful class.”
Following Bartel’s arrest, Zayeer “was constantly second-guessing his behaviour from what I remembered in his class. Had his friendliness and awkwardness towards his students been a sign all that time?” Though he “wondered if his crimes had extended to kids at WCI,” “no evidence was found of that ever happening.”
To Ross, “Mr. Bartel’s arrest came as a complete surprise… [and] there was nothing unusual about Mr. Bartel’s behavior.” She emphasized, “he was a supportive and helpful teacher, [and] the teacher mentor for [the Kerbal Space Club]… His participation was much appreciated.” Zayeer “was in complete disbelief at first. Initially, I had thought that the charges had potentially been for the wrong person, and that it was a coincidence that it was my old teacher who had been caught up in it,” though he “started to accept that he had really committed those crimes.”
To prevent inappropriate contact between teachers and students, California mandates a training program aimed at preventing student abuse. According to Rigisich, “[the training program is] a video… [that] goes over all kinds of things we’re supposed to watch for with students… The teachers are trained to see the signs, so we can report, so we can protect and help the student. Part of that is all types of abuse training, including sex abuse training.” Such a training program is not new, either. “We’ve been doing this for years. The recent change, [which added] a new segment on watching for inappropriate relationships… predates Michael Bartel’s arrest,” said Rigisich.
Just as Bartel is more than a molester, so does his story extend beyond his actions and their impacts upon the Walnut Creek community. It extends to his childhood and adolescence, to his college years and early adulthood. Stay tuned for more details as The Page investigates this matter.