(Westlake Village, Ca) There are moments in our lives that can define us. They play like tape recorders in our head, often on repeat. We hope during those moments we can be shooting the winning basket in the big game against a key rival or receiving top marks after a hard fought work effort. We hope to look back at ourselves and feel as if we can be proud of who we see in the mirror.
Two kids: Dominic Conti and Gianna Conti were branded by the same incident. Yet two kids walk away with wildly different experiences. One child stronger. One child seemingly in despair, believing this is how life is.
On the anniversary of #MeToo, Conejo Valley remembers the story of a family impacted by a boy that, according to an investigation by the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, showed “A preponderance of the evidence gathered by the District led it to conclude the Student (Gianna Conti) was subjected to peer harassment that resulted in a sexually hostile environment.”
In so many ways, the system didn’t protect the victim, Gianna Conti, or the older brother, Dominic Conti, that tried to protect her.
Dominic Conti was an all star athlete that had to stop sports half way through high school due to injury. He persevered in academics and after school activities and was voted junior class and senior class president. Domenic was also president of the campus chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a club he helped build to be more than 120 students.
Gianna Conti, a young freshman and swimmer who admired her big brother, seemed to have healthy friendships around school and was adjusting from middle school at Colina to high school at Westlake… That was until one day when a boy at her school approached her with a smile and said, “You want my black c*ck,” as he proceeded with profane advances.
The boy, Reece Smith, was a fellow freshman and football player who transferred into the district. Two weeks before the incident, the varsity football team had made headlines for hazing during a trip to Hawaii where the Thousand Oaks Acorn reported on a, “Trip to Hawaii in 2013 that led to one player being arrested, and an incident where a player sexually harassed a female student.”
Now weeks later, Gianna Conti finds herself being subjected to harassment as well from a football player. Horrified and uncomfortable, she left the game with her friends and awkwardly proceeded on with her evening.
As remarks continued a few days later, Gianna became frustrated and shared her experience with her mom. Her parents then decided to discuss the issue with Dominic’s biology teacher and football coach, Darin Erickson. Erickson listened as they shared the story. Erickson later approached Reece with another football coach. Reece denied the conduct. They went back to Gianna to clarify her part of the story before going back to Reece, but he continued to deny the accusations. Erickson called Gianna’s parent to let them know what had transpired.
Erickson was required to report complaints of sexual harassment to school administrators within 24 hours, which did not happen according to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education.
Fast forward, and it is the homecoming game at Westlake High School. It is Friday night in the Westlake High School stadium. Dominic is helping set up for the half time show and Larry and Gina Conti, the parents of Dominic & Gianna, are in the stands as their daughter sits with friends.
This time it happens again but dad and brother are close by.
Gianna walks over to her dad and says, “He’s here and he said it again.” Larry calls Dominic and says, “Please come over here. We need to talk to that kid who’s been bothering Gianna.” Dominic goes into the stands with his dad. Larry tells his son, “We are going to take this guy to security and have them deal with it.”
Larry ushers a security guard and tells him to come with them to approach Reece.
The pair then walk over to the boy and puts his hand on the boy’s elbow as if to say, “Come with me.” The boy throws a punch towards Larry who, according to witness statements, steps back and Dominic sees it coming and makes a defensive move to push the punch away from his dad and to also push the classmate away and up against the fence behind them. The security guard witnesses the exchange.
Things. Just. Got. Real.
Security. Police. Teachers. Commotion. Parents. Accusations. Coaches. Who Said What? What happened?
On Saturday morning (less than 12 hours later), Dominic was barred from going to his senior homecoming. By the end of a week, he was suspended for 5 days, removed from all leadership positions including as president of his senior class. All of this without an investigation, which would have included documented interviews from key witnesses at the time. And then… he was expelled from the district. Conejo Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) Board members voted 4-1 for his expulsion, with the dissenting vote coming from current CVUSD Trustee Mike Dunn. The security guard was no longer available. Verbal accounts included that he moved back to his native country or did not want to be involved. The Conti’s were not able to have his eye witness testimony.
On October 17, then-Westlake High School principal Ron Lipari, meets with the Associated Student Government class (ASG). According to a certified letter dated December 19, 2013, written by former Assistant Superintendent, Robert Iezza, multiple interviews were conducted with attendees of this meeting. Witness accounts stated, “Mr. Lipari’s discussion was really generic in what he was saying and the message about consequences, but it was a little harsh since Student A (unnamed individual) knows Dominic even though Mr. Lipari didn’t mention anyone in particular.”
However, written accounts submitted directly to the Contis included:
“On October 17th, Mrs. Modolo and Will Barrett said we would be having a guest speaker. When Mr. Lipari came into the class he asked our ASG class to tell him the characteristics of a leader. As the class volunteered characteristics, he wrote them on the board. He wrote 15-20 characteristics and bolded the ones he believed were the most important, such as integrity. He then explained what a leader should and shouldn’t do and how they should act. He stated how he was the principal of the school and explained how things that happen at our school represent him because he is the leader of our school and it’s his job to keep things in order and that it all comes back to him. He also used our ASG president as an example of how the president of the senior class doesn’t have the characteristics that were written on the board. Mr. Lipari said Dominic was involved with the police and criminal activity. After the discussion about Dominic, he advised us not to talk about the incident and to not tell anyone about the meeting we had that day. I know Dominic, have gone to school with him for 7 years and know him to have good character. I was uncomfortable with the situation that day.”
Based on written accounts from witnesses, attendees stated Lipari sought to demonstrate that Dominic no longer had the character to be a leader and Lipari chose to include details that should not have been made public. District reports conclude Lipari’s comments were generic and nothing specific to Dominic. Other witnesses attending the meeting made the Conti’s feel otherwise.
Fight or Flight
The Conti’s go to their son and share that he can get into another school or they could fight. Dominic states, “I did nothing wrong. I wanted to graduate with my friends. I want to fight this.”
The Conti’s decided to hire a lawyer.
When Gianna was asked what she thought at this point, she shared, “I was just so worried about Dominic. He had everything taken away because he was trying to protect me.”
When asking Dominic what he thought , he shared, “I was more worried about my parents because I knew they were protecting us and taking on a lot of heat.”
Silence is Deafening
The week after the fight, Reece Smith files a restraining order against Larry and Dominic Conti. In early November, Gianna Conti files a temporary restraining order against Reece Smith. In addition, the Conti’s file an appeal to the Uniform Complaint findings by the Conejo Valley Unified School District (CVUSD).
As the court case began, Gianna and Dominic asked friends for help to testify as to what they saw. But people wouldn’t step forward. “They told us they were scared. They knew how the administration had acted towards us and they didn’t want the retribution that would surely come with helping us. So many of our friends turned away from us out of fear,” shared Dominic.
“I lost so many friends,” explained Gianna. “There were people that were friends with Reece and me and it was awful. I had people really mad at me asking why I was going after HIM!”
In the court process, the Conti’s learn this is not the only time the young man has done this. Under oath, he shares that he had issues prior to his arrival at Westlake High School that were not disclosed during the school board’s vote.
Ultimately, the Conti’s prevail and Dominic is allowed back in school.
Coping in the Aftermath
When asked what happened after that, Gianna replied, “It kind of didn’t change. I mean it kind of got worse. I would go to my swim practice and he would be standing at the gate just watching me. My coach would tell him to get out of here. Or sometimes his friend would come up to me and say things like, ‘You know what he said right? Ha ha ha.’ It just wouldn’t end. There were times when I would go to the bathroom during class and he would be out in the hall, me and him and I didn’t know what to do. It just didn’t end. He kept doing it.”
Gianna ultimately transferred to Oaks Christian High School. Reece remained at Westlake High School until he sexually harassed another girl at the school (this time the daughter of a teacher). Reece was expelled and transferred to another district.
Dominic was able to graduate with his friends at Westlake High School, but he never regained his class presidency. He was placed in near-permanent after school suspension as punishment. He was not allowed to participate in any after school, extra curricular activities. He was demoralized, hurt, and saddened by so many silent voices watching him go through this without a word.
On graduation day, Lipari spoke. It was a speech that referred to Dominic again without naming him. The crowd was cold.
The ceremony turns to the graduates. Soon Dominic’s name is announced and in one last hoorah all the silent voices stood up and began to cheer… and cheer… and cheer.
Dominic stood on the stage and looked to the crowd of people voicing their support now that they all had no further fear of retribution. “It was glorious. I will never forget that day for the rest of my life.”
Gianna looked at her brother on stage, proud and happy. Tears flowing.
The next day, Ron Lipari resigned his position as Principal of Westlake High School.
Dominic continued to Pepperdine University and shared that people there had heard about his story and sympathized. Some reached out to help ensure his success in college after the painful ordeal of his senior year. He graduated in 3 years and then after working with his parent’s financial services business over the last year, he is living his dream, and joining the Air Force in January 2019.
Gianna’s Life in the Aftermath
Today, Gianna is 19 years old. She graduated from Oaks Christian in 2017 and is in college in Arizona. When asked what she learned, her voice is somber,” I don’t know. It’s just guys. They’re just like this. It’s everywhere.” Gianna explained in seeming despair.
When asked what she hoped would happen to the young man (who by now would be 19), she states, “I don’t know. I don’t wish anything bad against him. What he did as a kid shouldn’t ruin his life. It shouldn’t have to stay with him for the rest of his life. This happens to every girl to whatever extent. This happens to lots of people.”
Gianna continues, “This made me more conscious of other girls. I can look at girls and see their posture and when they are uncomfortable, I try to help them when I see they may need help in their circumstances. It definitely helped me to know my worth.”
When asked what she wished CVUSD learned from this, Gianna stated, “I wish they had realized how bad sexual harassment is and was. I don’t think they know how bad it is. I think they think we exaggerated. Some do, but mostly we don’t. I wish they were more realistic. The admins that are more realistic don’t want to have the spotlight on them. There should have been stricter sexual harassment policies. Suspension and meetings with parents. I don’t think there should be this ‘Ok! If you do this again.. Dun dun dah.’ Campus guards should interfere when this happens. This stuff happens right in front of their eyes.”
Attempts to reach Reece Smith, Ron Lipari, and Darin Erickson for this article were unsuccessful.
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