SIERRA VISTA — Half a dozen women who graduated from Buena High School between 2012 and 2020 have come forward to relay their experiences of sexual harassment at the school by a handful of male teachers.
The statements from the women came after online accusations of harassment against Buena teacher Timothy Wells, who died by suicide on Sept. 9.
The six women who spoke with the Herald/Review for this article — ages 20 to 28 years old — described a culture at the school in which some male teachers habitually remarked on certain female students’ body parts in front of their peers and made other sexual comments.
The former students said that over the years they told other teachers about Wells and other male instructors who were problematic, and for the most part were ignored.
One woman claimed she had sex with Wells when she was a minor.
The Herald/Review is not naming the women who came forward because of the nature of the allegations. One did ask to be identified, however.
Four of the six women named Wells as the main culprit. They said he would place his favorite female students in seats in front of his desk so he could stare down their blouses.
The women said he also liked rubbing their shoulders and backs when he walked by their desks in his classroom. One of the former students said he told her he wished he could put a mini version of her in his pocket and carry her around.
One of the women who graduated in 2018 said Wells increased his attention toward her during the time she was in his class.
“He would frequently ask me to stay after class and would eye me up and down,” the woman said. “Timothy Wells became more aggressive with his ‘flirting’ in front of the entire class towards me and would rub my back. He was very disappointed when I got my first tattoo senior year and told me I was now ‘tainted.’
“He later started sending lingerie to my best friend and would message her and tell her how badly he wanted her.”
A 2017 graduate shared an almost identical experience with Wells: “The first day I walked in and he looked me up and down and told me to take the seat right in front of his desk. He would stare down my shirt. He came up behind me several times and tried to massage my neck and shoulders.”
The oldest of the six women who contacted the Herald/Review said she reported Wells after he showed her photos he had stored on his tablet.
“Mr. Wells stalked my social media, and asked to see me after class one day,” said the woman, who graduated in 2012. “He waited for everyone to leave and pulled out his iPad. He then proceeded to show me nude pictures of women and women dressed in lingerie and asked if he could take pictures of me like that. I was speechless.”
The woman said she and her mother reported the encounter and Wells was suspended for a few days. The woman said Wells told administrators she had been the one who approached him and asked if he would photograph her. The woman said she was on Buena’s soccer team at the time and school officials tried to kick her off, but her mother complained, and it didn’t happen.
One of the six, Dana Tufts, said she had sex with Wells twice while she was a minor.
“I didn’t have classes with Mr. Wells, but he saw my picture with a friend of mine on Snapchat and asked who I was,” said Tufts, 24, who graduated from Buena in 2017. “He asked if he could take some photos of me in different outfits and I said yes.”
Tufts said she and Wells went to a motel in Sierra Vista. He took his camera equipment and liquor. He took pictures of her clothed and then nude. They ended up having sex, she said.
She described a second incident when Wells picked her up at her residence and took her to Bisbee for more photo shoots. They went to one of the city’s famed stairs.
“We went to (some) hidden stairs and he took pictures under my skirt,” Tufts said. “We ended up having sex behind a tree. I was 17 and he was like 39 or 40.”
Wells, 46, shot himself in the head as allegations came to light. His body was found by a hiker and her dog along a well-traversed trail inside Miller Canyon, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office said. The school confirmed Wells was under investigation related to the claims shortly before his death.
His suicide followed comments made on Facebook two days prior by a woman who posted the question: “Anyone else been sexually assaulted by the teacher Timothy Wells?”
The Facebook post, which has since been removed, drew dozens of comments from numerous women who described harassment and abuse, as well as secrecy by the school and various administrators who they claimed knew about Wells since at least 2011, when the first complaint was made to Sierra Vista Police.
Despite the claims of sexual conduct and harassment, Wells remained employed as a teacher at Buena High School until his death.
Eric Holmes, superintendent of Sierra Vista Unified School District, released a statement on the allegations, and Jacqui Clay, Cochise County Superintendent of Schools, talked to the Herald/Review about the situation.
Holmes, who has spoken about the importance of transparency in the school district since taking over in 2020, sent the Herald/Review a prepared statement via a district spokesperson.
The statement says: “The district is aware of allegations by former students on social media regarding past conduct by certain District employees. As of now, there are no allegations by current students. Sierra Vista Unified School District is in the early stages of working with complainants, investigators, and the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office regarding these allegations.
“In order to maintain the integrity of the investigation process, we will not comment directly on the allegations. However, to assist us in the investigation we are asking that any current or former students or employees having any knowledge of inappropriate behaviors by any employee to contact the school district by either leaving a voice message at 520-515-2772 or sending an email to ReportInfo@svps.k12.az.us. Please be sure to include your contact information so we may reach out to you.
“I and all the employees here at Sierra Vista Unified know we are entrusted with the most valuable thing in the world, our community’s children. Safety and security will always be our number one priority for our students at the Sierra Vista Unified School District.”
Holmes did not respond to a message left on his cell phone by a reporter on Friday afternoon. District spokesperson Valerie Weller sent an email later in the day saying that no further information would be released.
Questions sent to Holmes by the Herald/Review included whether he knew about the allegations and what was being done to prevent such behavior by teachers in the future. No one has provided any information regarding how many former students have come forward or may have been affected by Wells and other instructors.
Clay, who taught at Buena and was the school’s assistant principal before being elected county superintendent in 2016, didn’t have much information to offer.
“It’s basically a school district matter, and in that regard, I’m just like everyone else, on the outside,” she said.
Clay said she was unsure what policies and procedures were in place regarding sexual misconduct by teachers when she was at Buena. She said she would have to look at her notes/resume.
As superintendent of schools, Clay said her office is not a disciplinary board. It assists the county’s 22 school districts, education professionals, parents and students by serving as the education service agent, fiscal agent, education programs administrator and school elections administrator.
She also said her office provides guidance, advocacy, programs and services and professional development for teachers and other school personnel.
Sierra Vista Police Chief Adam Thrasher told the Herald/Review on Friday that his agency had received two reports from former Buena female students concerning Wells’ behavior. One was filed in 2011 and the other in 2017.
Thrasher said the behavior of Wells and other teachers was wrong and inappropriate but did not rise to the level of a criminal offense. Thrasher said the women who reported the harassment were touched by Wells on the back or neck, which is not considered a criminal offense. To be considered a crime, the touching must be on the breasts or genitals.
Thrasher said the high school and the school district are the entities that should have dealt with the matter, not police, unless something criminal could be proven.
“It’s very difficult for us to do anything about that as law enforcement,” he said.
Wells could have been charged with a felony for having sex with Tufts, but she told the newspaper she did not report the encounters to police at the time. She has since spoken to a detective who met with her last week, Tufts and Thrasher said.
While Tufts said the sex was consensual, Arizona law states the age of consent is 18. Thrasher said Wells could have been charged with having sex with a minor, a felony. Because the sex was not forced, however, the offense does not fall under sexual assault or rape, he said.
Tufts said she realizes now that Wells was taking advantage of her.
“I was just 17,” she said. “He was the adult.”
Wells is dead but that doesn’t mean the investigation is closed, Thrasher said. The police department will take all complaints that come forward and victims would be referred to a victim advocacy facility.
Thrasher said he could not comment on any of the other teachers mentioned by the women who spoke to the Herald/Review.
Wells was not the only one making female students feel uncomfortable.
The women who spoke with the Herald/Review mentioned other former teachers who made inappropriate and sexual comments to underaged students.
Comments included one teacher telling a student he thought about her when he got out of the shower and wished she could be with him. In another incident, a gym teacher asked a student to pick up tape on the floor of the gymnasium and as she was doing so, said, “I got you on your knees faster than your boyfriend could.”
Documents show one student got a harassment injunction against a teacher who is no longer at the school.
After numerous lewd and inappropriate comments, the girl eventually told her parents. A report filed with Sierra Vista Police in 2017 includes many of the claims, as does paperwork she filed with the Cochise County Superior Court in 2017.
The Herald/Review is not naming the other teachers identified by the women at this time.
Investigators are encouraging anyone who may have been a victim of Wells or any other teacher at Buena to call the Sierra Vista Police Department, 520-452-7500.
Any former or current students, teachers or parents who wish to speak with the Herald/Review regarding harassment or abuse may contact reporter Lyda Longa at 520-515-4618 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Names will be kept confidential unless otherwise requested.
Herald/Review reporter R.J. Cohn contributed to this report.