Editor's note: This article contains descriptions of sexual violence and self harm that may be disturbing to some readers.
In January of last year, the Palo Alto Unified School District received an anonymous email from the husband of a former student, alleging that two decades earlier physical education teacher Peter Colombo had raped the then-sixth grader.
The allegation, which led to a police investigation and his arrest last June, was only the latest charge of criminal conduct by Colombo stretching back nearly 30 years. That list doesn't include additional noncriminal complaints about his behavior that parents submitted to the school district.
District administrators knew of Colombo's criminal history more than a decade ago and yet kept him in the district's employ, according to documents obtained by the Palo Alto Weekly.
How could this have happened? That's the question this news organization set out to answer by filing Public Records Act requests, interviewing school district administrators, scrutinizing online personnel data and posing numerous questions to the state's teacher credentialing commission. We also reached out to the student and her husband, as well as Colombo and his attorney, though none responded.
The picture that has emerged is one of numerous second chances given to a teacher and athletic coach who was well-known and, by some, well-regarded. Despite red flags and a checkered history, Colombo worked with Palo Alto students for nearly a quarter century. Colombo himself acknowledged in 2021 the grace administrators had extended to him a decade earlier, saying that they found him "likable" and appreciated the success he'd had with students in athletics.
Current Superintendent Don Austin said in an interview that no one who had decision-making power over Colombo's employment at the time of his criminal convictions and credential suspension is still employed by the district, and he couldn't speak for them. However, Austin said that if the same series of events happened today, he would not let the teacher keep their job.
"Selecting and retaining the people that work with your children is the most important job that we do in the school district," Austin said. "There's a point to where there's enough of a pattern of behavior where some people should not have that right of working with students."
When Palo Alto Unified received the rape allegation, district officials placed Colombo on administrative leave and reported the message to police, who conducted an investigation. Colombo was ultimately arrested in June and was charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child. He is currently out on bail awaiting a preliminary hearing scheduled for next month. If convicted, he faces 15 years to life in prison.
Legal troubles pre-date Colombo's work in Palo Alto schools
Colombo's professional troubles began before he was hired by Palo Alto Unified in 1998. He failed to disclose three prior criminal convictions on a 1995 substitute teaching credential application, an omission that triggered the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to issue a "public reproval" in 1997, which serves as a public warning of misconduct.
Those convictions included a 1988 misdemeanor trespassing charge after he went unannounced to the home of a woman he had met through his girlfriend and began honking the horn of his vehicle, according to the teacher credentialing commission's summary of his criminal cases. When police arrived, he was found hiding in the bushes, the summary states.
Later that year, he was arrested for ripping a telephone off its cord outside a bar and grill and throwing it at a parked car during an argument with the person inside the vehicle. He pleaded no contest and was convicted of misdemeanor vandalism and misdemeanor disorderly conduct under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the summary of his criminal cases states.
In 1990, he was convicted after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges of DUI and hit and run. The charges stemmed from a traffic accident after which he failed a field sobriety test, had a blood alcohol level of 0.236% and told police officers that he had a drinking problem, the summary states. The legal limit is 0.08%.
The state Commission on Teacher Credentialing issued the public warning in June 1997. The following year, Palo Alto Unified hired Colombo as a P.E. teacher at Jordan Middle School, now called Greene, and Palo Alto High School, district records show.
It's unclear what the district would have known before hiring Colombo in the 1990s.
The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing in 1998 provided an "all points bulletin" to superintendents that listed adverse actions the commission took against educators, a representative from the commission said. Although the commission now offers an online tool to look up a teacher's credential status, that wasn't launched until 2001, after Colombo was hired in Palo Alto.
For employees being hired today, not all criminal convictions are automatically disqualifying, Austin said, including DUI convictions. Relevant factors in determining whether to employ someone with a DUI conviction include looking at any proactive measures the applicant has taken to address the issue, their explanation of what occurred and the district's level of confidence that the issue is in the past, Austin said.
When it comes to someone withholding information on a job application about past convictions and credential-related disciplinary actions, Austin said that would stop the district from hiring the person.
"Yes, lying on your application would be a disqualification if you withheld information about discipline of any sort," Austin said.
If the district knows that an applicant has been publicly reproved by the teacher credentialing commission for failing to disclose criminal convictions, Austin said, the district would not hire them.
While it isn't known whether the district was aware of Colombo's criminal history when it hired him in 1998, it turned out that he had not put his alcohol problems in his past. In December 2003, he was pulled over for traffic violations and exhibited signs of intoxication. His blood alcohol content measured at 0.19% and 0.17%, according to the summary of his criminal cases. The following month, he pleaded guilty and was convicted of misdemeanor DUI, court records show.
Despite the conviction, Colombo continued working and coaching. That spring, he led the Palo Alto High School baseball team to the Central Coast Section Division I championship game.
In October 2005, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing wrote Colombo to notify him that the Committee of Credentials had found probable cause to recommend the suspension of his teaching credential for 60 days. The basis for the suspension recommendation is not publicly known; an attachment explaining the basis of the decision wasn't included among the documents that the commission released to this news organization, and a commission representative stated that it was exempt from public disclosure.
Colombo appealed the 2005 suspension recommendation, requesting an administrative hearing, the commission confirmed.
After the administrative hearing, Colombo and the commission agreed on a Consent Determination and Order in February 2007, the commission representative said. That agreement placed him on a four-year probationary period, citing his multiple convictions, including the 2004 DUI.
The conditions of probation included that Colombo couldn't drink alcohol and would be subject to random alcohol tests. He also had to attend Alcoholics Anonymous, or a similar group if he got pre-approval from the Commission, at least once a week for the first two years of probation. Colombo was also required to follow all federal, state and local laws and submit a detailed written account of any arrests and citations, except minor traffic offenses, within 72 hours. The agreement took effect on March 17, 2007.
Jordan Middle School's principal at the time and Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Scott Bowers each signed forms acknowledging that Colombo had given them a copy of the agreement.
An administrator from the Redwood City Elementary School District also signed a form acknowledging he had received the agreement. Colombo had worked as a day-to-day substitute teacher in the district during the 2006-2007 school year, a Redwood City School District spokesperson said.
On March 9, 2010, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing sent Colombo a letter notifying him that it had received credible evidence he had used alcohol during his probation. According to the terms of the 2007 agreement, if he used alcohol during probation, the Commission would immediately suspend his credential until it reviewed and took "final action" on the issue.
As a result, Palo Alto Unified placed Colombo on leave, his Palo Alto employment record shows. Bowers wrote the Commission on Teacher Credentialing a letter on April 6, 2010, urging it to reinstate Colombo's credential.
"I would like the Commission to know that I believe that Mr. Colombo has made considerable effort and progress in dealing with his alcohol issues," the letter states. "On a continued positive note, these issues have not impacted his work as a teacher in our District."
The letter also notes that Colombo remained a tenured teacher in the district and was entitled to a full-time job when the suspension was lifted.
The Commission and Colombo subsequently agreed to modify the 2007 Consent Determination and Order so that his credential would be suspended from March 9, 2010, through April 28, 2010, and his probation would be extended by two more years, for a total of six years. He was also required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or a similar group at least once a week for the rest of the probation period.
On April 29, 2010, Colombo's employment record shows that he returned to his position at Jordan.
In April 2013, the Commission sent Colombo a letter notifying him that he had successfully complied with the probation requirements, and his credential was restored.
When asked why the district retained Colombo as a teacher and coach after this string of criminal and disciplinary problems, Austin said he did not know.
"There's literally not a person that would have been involved in that decision that still works in our school district," Austin said.
Bowers declined to answer questions for this article.
Multiple complaints as the 2021-2022 school year starts
School district records show that Colombo found himself in trouble again in the fall of 2021. Within the first month of the 2021-2022 school year, Greene Middle School parents lodged four complaints against Colombo for rudeness and inappropriate comments and behavior.
One parent reported that Colombo used the term "pimp" to refer to students and said that it didn't appear to have been a one-time incident, emails released by the district show.
"I am really appalled by the standards you have for yourself with these kids," the parent wrote. "You are supposed to be a role model when you are with them and instead you are introducing them to highly offensive language and you are glorifying misogyny and human trafficking."
Colombo responded, telling the parent it wouldn't happen again.
"I understand your feelings and my only recourse is to assure you this will not happen again," Colombo wrote.
The parent then followed up with Greene Middle School Principal Sebastian Benavidez and said that Colombo had once again called the child, and others, a pimp.
"I demand that he is reprimanded and fired. He has no remorse, is not contrite, and lied to us," the parent wrote in an email to Benavidez and an assistant principal.
Colombo explained his behavior to Benavidez, writing in an email that he intended "pimp" as a compliment, that it was a way of saying that the student was "hecka cool" and that he had used the term for years. At the same time, Colombo said that he needed to change with the times and that he had no excuses.
Benavidez, who had taken over as principal two months before, replied that he appreciated Colombo's reflection.
"Just so you know, I'm not about consequences, I'm about learning and development, especially my own. I'm learning and growing every day and here to support you in doing the same," said Benavidez, who had previously worked in the Fresno Unified School District from 2004 to 2021.
In a follow-up email to Benavidez, Colombo wrote that his "ego is out of control and I need to look at that." He said that he had almost lost his job in 2010 because of drug and alcohol abuse, and that this was the first time in 11 years that he'd had ego-driven behavior problems.
"In all honesty I should have been fired back in 2010 but they gave me one more chance because they said I was likeable and had done lots of good things coaching too," Colombo wrote.
Benavidez replied, "You're a great person Pete. Your struggles have given you a deep understanding many others will never know. I'm proud of you for recovering from a challenging addiction and for being courageous enough to share your experience with me."
Another parent complaint alleged that a physical education teacher was rude to their son on two different occasions. In one case, the child allegedly went to the P.E. teachers' office to report that his lock was missing from his locker. Three teachers were in the middle of a conversation, so the student said that he waited for a break in the conversation.
One of the teachers turned to him and said "What do you want? Just go!," the parent's email stated. Although the report didn't name the teacher, it described him as bald and not very tall. Benavidez apparently knew this referenced Colombo because he forwarded the email to him.
Another complaint that the district released, sent on Sept. 2, 2021, alleged that Colombo had made inappropriate comments to multiple students, including talking about his dating life before he was married and his divorce. What the writer described as the "most disturbing" incident was largely redacted but involved the phrase "dez nutts."
"For him to talk about his genitalia, to (redacted) any child in a joking manner or not, is utterly irresponsible and outrageous," the complaint states.
The email went on to say that Colombo told students "that he knows who files reports against him so don't try it."
On Sept. 3, Benavidez emailed Colombo a more formal message that began "Dear Mr. Colombo" and informed Colombo that Benavidez wanted to meet with him the following day to discuss multiple complaints that were received over the past week. Lisa Hickey, the district's director of human resources for certificated employees, which encompasses teachers, was included on the message, and Benavidez said that she would be present for the meeting.
Following the meeting, Benavidez sent Colombo a formal warning letter, directing him to correct his behavior moving forward, which included always using appropriate language with students, not directly emailing parents who have concerns or complaints, and avoiding physical contact with students at all times.
While warning Colombo that his behavior must change, Benavidez also wrote that during their meeting it was clear Colombo had "taken responsibility and reflected" on the complaints.
Benavidez also said, "In speaking with you on multiple occasions, you appear to be a physical communicator." The letter referenced a fourth complaint about Colombo that Benavidez had received: A student "complained about contact you made with them that made them feel uncomfortable."
Benavidez said that "the alleged contact happened during the daily routine of guiding students through an exercise/activity. Mr. Colombo redirected the student in (the) right direction by putting his open hand on the middle of their back."
In response to this news organization's questions about Benavidez's initially forgiving email exchanges with Colombo, followed by the warning letter, Benavidez stressed the broader context of his messages, including that he was responding to Colombo sharing information about his struggles with addiction. He also said that disciplinary action typically isn't finalized until after a meeting with the staff member, which was when the warning letter was issued.
"Therefore, I did not switch course because my course of action had not yet been decided," Benavidez wrote in an email.
How the rape allegation surfaced
Less than five months after issuing the warning letter to Colombo, the district received the rape allegation that led to Colombo's arrest.
In an email to the school district, included in the police department's investigative report, the student's now-husband alleged that his wife had been raped by Colombo roughly 20 years ago, during the 2001-2002 school year, when she was 11 years old. After the assault, Colombo called her "saucy" and tormented her about the rape, the email said.
He told the district that he was sending the email not because he wanted to pursue legal recourse but because he has to live with the reality of his wife's rape every day. He added that, most importantly, there could be other victims.
"I pray we are truly the only ones who have suffered from Pete's actions and that he has not victimized any other children since then, though I know the odds are quite high that he has," the husband wrote.
After receiving the email, the district's then-General Counsel Komey Vishakan, whose employment with the district was terminated last summer, contacted the police department, forwarding a copy of the message. The district also placed Colombo on paid administrative leave.
Before the police had identified who the former student was or interviewed Colombo, he contacted them to report what he described as "cyberbullying." Colombo said that he and his wife were sent an anonymous email, which police confirmed was similar to the one the district received.
Colombo told police that it could have been a case of mistaken identity because another teacher had been arrested for inappropriate behavior with a student. The police report states that Colombo brought up someone named Bill, but the last name is redacted from the report.
Bill Giordano was a fellow teacher and coach at Jordan Middle School who was sentenced to four years in prison in 2006 for child molestation that occurred from 1991 to 1994. Giordano began teaching in the district in 1978 and was teaching at Jordan from 1991 until his arrest in 2005.
Colombo also suggested the allegation could have been made by "a disgruntled former girlfriend or some other mentally unhealthy person," according to the police report. He also said that he was dealing with alcohol addiction at the time and "may have been an alcoholic, and a womanizer," but that he wasn't a "child abuser."
Once Colombo's accuser was identified in 2022, she was at first hesitant to talk to police but ultimately agreed to be interviewed, according to the police report. She attributed her willingness to talk to "the fact that she had recently become a mother and wanted to reconcile her past trauma for both her and her family," the police report states.
She confirmed to police that although her attacker had raped her from behind, she knew it had been Colombo.
She recounted that the assault occurred after class during the swim unit in the 2001-2002 school year. Colombo asked her to stay behind to help with the pool cover and by the time she returned to the locker room to get changed, it was almost or entirely empty, she told police.
Colombo then came up behind her, pushed her down on a bench and raped her, she said. The former student explained that when she recalls the assault, she has flashbacks to a mural above her locker that she was looking at during the rape. The mural honored a Jordan student who had died and depicted a child's face among the clouds.
When the student got home that day, she told her mother that she wanted "to get Mr. Colombo fired" and that he was "too nice to me," an account that her mother confirmed to investigators, according to the police report.
Prior to the assault, the student told police, she got good grades and was on a competitive swim team. Afterward, she said that she experienced major depression, began drinking and doing drugs. Her sister also told police that she used to be "bubbly and happy" but then began to self-harm and developed bulimia.
The student also tried to avoid Colombo and P.E. class, including in one case purposefully kicking a basketball post so hard that she bled, she said.
"She stated that everything changed after this incident and was the cause of self-medication and drug and alcohol use at a very young age," the police report states.
Her mother told police that her daughter required psychiatric help. The family decided to move to try to improve things.
According to the police report, the investigating officer spoke to family members and friends in 2022 who confirmed that they had been told about the assault over the years. The older sister told police that when she was 14 years old, her younger sister told her that she had been raped by Colombo. The older sister also sent police a copy of a 2010 online chat with her now-husband, in which she wrote that Colombo had raped her sister in sixth grade.
Their father told police that his younger daughter had told him that she was raped by Colombo the year after the assault occurred. Their mother told police that she had learned about the assault from a family friend when her younger daughter was roughly 16 years old.
One of the student's friends told police that almost 16 years ago, the student told her that she'd been sexually assaulted by her P.E. teacher. When another teacher was arrested for sexual misconduct — identified in the report as Bill, with the last name redacted — the friend contacted the student, who was positive that had not been the person who had raped her, according to the police report.
The student and her older sister both told police that before the assault, Colombo behaved in ways that in retrospect were inappropriate. The older sister told police that Colombo always asked about her younger sister and made comments about her. She said that this attention was unique to her younger sister.
The younger sister also recalled that when Colombo once overheard that she had forgotten her lunch, he offered to take her to his house and make her food. When she refused, he offered to buy her pizza. She said that she was so uncomfortable that she responded "I don't like food" and quickly walked away.
She also remembered that Colombo would walk through the girls locker room and yell, "Girls, a guy is coming through, close your eyes!" She said this stuck out to her as weird behavior because he was an adult man in a girls' locker room telling students to close their eyes.
The police report includes one interview in defense of Colombo. A fellow physical education teacher told police that she would often be in the locker room at the time of day that the assault was described to have happened, so she believed it was unlikely to have occurred. She also said that in 21 years of working with Colombo, she had "never witnessed anything that alarmed her or seemed inappropriate," and was only concerned "about his mouth," noting that he would yell and use words like "honey" in a way that she said was innocent.
In an interview with police, Colombo reviewed a copy of the school yearbook and denied remembering either of the sisters.
After conducting interviews with nearly a dozen people connected to the case and reviewing documentation including a school yearbook, photos of the student before and after the alleged rape, and a 2004 poem the student had written, police ultimately arrested Colombo last June 15.
After initially being held without bail, a judge granted Colombo's lawyers' request for bail in June, over prosecutors' objections. Colombo posted the $250,000 bond. His next scheduled court date is a preliminary hearing in March.
Austin said that Colombo remains on unpaid administrative leave while the current court case proceeds.
Reflecting on Colombo's past disciplinary and criminal problems, Austin said that a teacher with that record today wouldn't be allowed to keep their job. As for why the district has not fired Colombo, Austin said that the decision on how to handle Colombo's misconduct had been made by administrators many years ago.
"Those transgressions cannot be reevaluated again more than a decade later," Austin said in an email. "The new, and unrelated, allegations are a different story. We expect the current allegation from long ago to be presented, heard, and judged in the court of law. Until that happens, unpaid leave is our only option."
When asked if the school district conducted its own investigation after receiving the rape allegation, Austin said that the district offered its formal complaint process to the person who had submitted the allegation, but that it was declined. Because the complaint had been anonymous, Austin said in an email that "there was very little the district could investigate at that time." Instead, he said that the Palo Alto Police Department conducted the investigation.
"Due to the serious and sensitive nature of an allegation from long ago, we followed the request of the Palo Alto Police Department to stand down and allow them to conduct an unobstructed investigation," Austin said in an email.
A police department spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics of Colombo's case but confirmed that in general, "a criminal investigation takes precedence over an administrative (internal) investigation, so that the criminal investigator can have the first opportunity to gather evidence and perform interviews."
Typically, investigators will let other entities know when the criminal investigation has reached a point where an administrative inquiry wouldn't impact law enforcement's ability to gather evidence and perform interviews, the police spokesperson said. He did not specify whether the investigation into Colombo had reached that point.
As for whether the student who said that Colombo raped her was the only one to make such allegations, Austin said that the district issued a June 2022 press release announcing Colombo's arrest and encouraging those with information to contact police. No one else alleging misconduct has come forward to the district, Austin said, though he added that he wouldn't know if someone contacted law enforcement.
Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Kelly Meeker declined to comment on whether any other victims have been identified, beyond saying that only one victim is listed in the criminal complaint.
Colombo's attorney did not return multiple requests for comment.