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The San Ysidro Syndrome: Worshiping a False Idol

Created: 10 November, 2017
Updated: 15 August, 2023
6 min read

Illustration by Andy Aviña

Psychiatrists, psychologist, and theologians alike understand the phenomenon of people blindly following a leader, even at the follower’s own peril. Whether it’s a partner, preacher, or protagonist, these co-dependent relationships can sometimes lead to a dangerous imbalance of power and result in abuse of the trust placed in a charismatic leader.

The most dangerous situation is when people become so enamored with a deceptive principal that they lose all objectiveness in evaluating their relationship, and ignore issues that would be plainly obvious to a casual observer.

The most famous case of this cognitive distortion is called the Stockholm Syndrome, named for a bank robbery that took place in August 1973, in Stockholm, Sweden. Two armed robbers stormed the bank and held three women and one man as hostages in what turned into a five-day siege. The assailants strapped explosives to the hostages and held them in the bank vault until they were finally rescued 131 hours later.

After the rescue, however, the hostages defended the bank robbers, and believed the criminals had been protecting them from police. One of the female hostages later became engaged to one of the robbers, and another hostage set up a legal defense fund for one of the bad guys. The victims had bonded with their captors, and criticized anyone who attacked them.

Victims of spousal abuse sometimes suffer similar distortions when they call police for help, only to turn on the very officers that come to their rescue.

These cases follow a similar pattern: positive feelings toward the controller, negative feelings toward those trying to help the victim, supportive behavior by the victim toward the aggressor that allowed the abuse, and the inability to engage in behavior that may assist in their release or detachment.

A similar drama is playing out at the San Ysidro School District as news that its administrators abused the authority of their positions and milked the District for hundreds of thousands of dollars, all the while purporting to be serving the needs of the students of our community.

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In the past few months, as news reports surfaced of exorbitant spending and self-dealing by the superintendent and his deputy, the reaction of the District and its employee unions was to attack the media and anyone that tried to raise concerns about the malfeasance.

Their vaulted leader, Superintendent Julio Fonseca, had come to power after the fall of their former superintendent that had pled guilty to accepting cash from a prospective contractor and served time in prison. Morale was low, teachers had endured stagnant salaries, and the community was desperate for a fresh start.

Enter Fonseca; a young, well-educated, and charismatic leader that looked and acted the part. He grew up poor, but worked his way up to earn a doctorate from one of the best universities in the country. He had the credentials, and the ambition, to be a superstar.

And to assist him, Fonseca hired a close friend as his deputy and fiscal officer. Together, the dynamic duo set out to rebuild the District from financial ruin and academic under-performance. The leaders rallied employees and delivered pay raises and two bonuses. New classroom materials appeared, and overall performance improved for both teachers and students.

For the first year, all seemed well, but, soon, signs of trouble began to surface. Fonseca hired his girlfriend, and then fired a whistleblower who talked about it. He took pay raises without the required performance reviews. He wasn’t around the office much, but no one seemed to care.

Then the wheels fell off the wagon this year. As news broke that the District’s settlement with the whistleblower may have been an illegal coverup of Fonseca’s relationship with the female employee, his supporters began to dismiss the stories as lies and politically-motivated attacks. When stories of misappropriation of funds surfaced, the employee unions mobilized a campaign against the accusers, not the perpetrators. And when the female employee finally turned against Fonseca and filed a harassment complaint against him, her claims were not investigated as required by law.

It’s human nature to go through a process of dealing with traumatic events that shake us up and challenge our views toward someone we trusted. The steps we go through in our arc from disbelief, denial, anger, acceptance, and recovery take different paths and disparate lengths of time for each person.

A few District leaders had tried to raise the alarm about Fonseca for months, but they were ignored, bullied, and silenced. A few strong parents and community leaders spoke out at public meetings, only to be dismissed as troublemakers. For months, Fonseca and his rabid supporters countered critics with denials and accusations of their own, using rumors and lies to confuse the dialogue.

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In September, Fonseca resigned before the Board could put him on a leave of absence. Last week, his deputy, who temporarily took his place, resigned before he was put on leave after accusations were made that they both took unearned vacation pay and other illegal draws from the District totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

As the details are beginning to surface, some of their supporters are still wholeheartedly backing the departed administrators, but many are beginning to see the painfully-obvious truth; they were taken for suckers by their leader.

It’s not easy to accept the con. Sometimes, out of denial of being lied to, or even out of embarrassment for being played a fool, people can’t accept the fact that their hero turned out to be a zero.

Such seems to be the case in San Ysidro, a community that had already suffered at the hands of a manipulative leader that abused his office to shake down contractors. It seems unbelievable that new administrators could commit even worse acts in the very same district.

The time has come to recover, and rebuild the District, and admit and accept the truth. People worshiped a false idol who took advantage of their trust for his own gain. He exposed himself to be a charlatan, and will surely face the consequences of his actions.

The community is strong and will be stronger for its struggles, and will again find real leaders worthy of its trust.

San Ysidro deserves better for its students, parents, and teachers.

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