May 23, 2024

Michael Guzman was a popular teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School in El Sereno around the turn of the century.

He taught history and coached the girls’ basketball team.

But more than two decades later — after he had moved on to different schools in different districts — Guzman, an assistant principal at Gabrielino High in San Gabriel, was arrested this month and charged with four counts of lewd acts on a child stemming from allegations from about 20 years ago, according to court documents and interviews with two of the alleged victims.

Though so much time has passed, the victims — Maria Barajas and Clarissa Vizcaino — who went to the Los Angeles Police Department decades after the alleged abuse said that the memories of their treatment at the hands of Guzman stuck with them, scarred them and sometimes caused ruptures in their adult relationships.

“I just kind of put it in this box and put it away for a long time,” said Barajas, who’s 42.

Guzman, 57, has denied in court papers having any sexual relationship with Barajas and Clarissa Vizcaino, 38, when they were underage. Neither Guzman nor his attorney in the civil suit immediately responded to a request for comment.

Barajas and Vizcaino said they were not close friends at Woodrow Wilson. They were different ages. Barajas was a senior on the varsity team coached by Guzman, while Vizcaino was a freshman on the junior varsity team, also coached by Guzman.

What they had in common was that they both played basketball and were allegedly favorites of Guzman. Barajas and Vizcaino claim that Guzman began to groom them when they were freshmen in high school, Barajas in 1995 and Vizcaino in 1998, eventually moving on from his relationship with Barajas and beginning a new one with Vizcaino.

Vizcaino said Guzman would have her come close to him in his office and put his cheek to her cheek or tell her how good she smelled even before they allegedly ever had sex.

“At that time, I had never had anyone be that affectionate with me. I had never had an actual real boyfriend or kissed anyone,” Vizcaino said.

Barajas said it was more than a year into them knowing each other before her relationship with Guzman allegedly turned sexual. One day in a car her sophomore year, he allegedly began rubbing her leg, she said. The two then began a sexual relationship that lasted through her senior year, Barajas claimed.

Barajas and Vizcaino both claim that Guzman began having sexually inappropriate interactions with them when they were between 14 and 15 years old, according to a lawsuit the duo filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in 2022.

Guzman was around 35 at the time of the misconduct, according to the lawsuit.

A man in a dark suit and tie is flanked by student athletes

Michael Guzman, center, stands with the Woodrow Wilson High School girls’ basketball team. Standing in front of him is Clarissa Vizcaino.

(Ashley Pileika)

Vizcaino even kept a diary from 2000, when she was about 15 and in the midst of her alleged relationship with Guzman. She wrote about playing basketball with “Guzman” or “Guz” as she sometimes called him. One time, when she went to get water during practice, he followed her out and allegedly kissed her near the gym. She also took down sexually inappropriate comments that Guzman allegedly made to her at school.

A key part of the claims the women have made against the Los Angeles Unified School District in their lawsuit is that other staff at Woodrow Wilson knew or should have known about the alleged abuse that was taking place, but that they failed to do anything about it.

Guzman gave the girls rides alone in his car, which other teachers knew, according to the suit. He also once told Vizcaino that the principal at Woodrow Wilson knew about their sexual relationship but would not say anything because the principal had also had inappropriate sexual relationships on campus, the suit claims. The lawsuit also says that other coaches on the basketball team should have known what was going on.

“While we take all student matters seriously, Los Angeles Unified does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation,” said Elvia Perez Cano, an LAUSD spokesperson.

The exterior of a cream-colored school building with the words Woodrow Wilson High School on a wall

Woodrow Wilson High School in April 2022.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

After Barajas and Vizcaino graduated, Guzman moved on and worked at other schools.

“An overarching objective of Maria and Clarissa in coming forward is to ensure what happened to them does not happen to others. The grooming, the trauma — the lifelong impact of child sexual abuse is real, and victims deserve justice,” said Ashley Pileika, an attorney for Barajas and Vizcaino. “We are grateful to the LAPD and [the L.A. County district attorney’s] office for prioritizing this case and the safety of children in the greater Los Angeles community.”

Before he ended up at Gabrielino, a public school in the San Gabriel Unified School District, Guzman worked in two other districts and at numerous different schools, according to an article about him in the Gabrielino school newspaper. Guzman worked in education for 30 years leading up to his arrest and had just started at Gabrielino this year.

“I am having a great time, learning the ins-and-outs of the school’s culture,” Guzman told a student reporter at Gabrielino this year.

The San Gabriel Unified School District said that Guzman was placed on unpaid administrative leave after the news of his arrest. The district said in a statement that it had no information suggesting that Guzman committed any misconduct while at Gabrielino.

“Hearing that a person entrusted to work with students may have committed a crime such as this is, of course, deeply troubling and disturbing, and our thoughts are with the alleged victim or victims in this case,” San Gabriel Unified School District Supt. Jim Symonds said in a statement shared with The Times.

Barajas and Vizcaino both said that their alleged experiences with Guzman have shaped who they are, especially in their romantic relationships.

“I feel like all my life I wanted to be a mom and to be married and I’m a 42-year-old single woman without children,” Barajas said. “I came to that realization, knowing how it’s because that history of mine has affected every decision I’ve ever made.”

Vizcaino also said that she struggled in romantic relationships and believes it has to do with Guzman.

“I wasn’t in a real relationship until my mid-20s because I was still waiting for him. Every relationship has been some sort of abusive or toxic,” she said.

It was not until May, seven months after they filed the lawsuit, that Vizcaino and Barajas went to the police.

When the police realized that Vizcaino still was able to contact Guzman, they set up a call where they hoped the former coach would admit to the conduct he was accused of, Vizcaino said. They called Guzman from the precinct and put him on speaker phone, Vizcaino said.

She said she asked pointed questions like, “Why did you have sex with me at school when I was 15?”

She said she told him she was angry. She asked him about specific incidents.

And while Guzman allegedly apologized repeatedly on the call, Vizcaino said it was not enough for the detective to make an immediate arrest.

“It was a clear confession to me. But the detective wanted more information,” she said.

It took six more months before Guzman was finally arrested Nov. 13. Three days later, he was released on bond.

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