A view of Shanghai American School, Puxi Campus.
An extremely popular and even revered veteran teacher at the Shanghai American School (SAS) was fired last month, leading to a cascade of disturbing allegations made against the teacher by former students which have rocked the SAS community.
SAS, one of China’s top international schools, dismissed high school English teacher James Mikkelson in November following an investigation into some concerning reports regarding inappropriate relationships with former students. In a letter to parents, Marcel Gauthier, Head of School, announced that Mikkelson had made choices “inconsistent with SAS standards for integrity and professionalism.”
Gauthier said that in the course of the investigation which was conducted “with the support of a strategic consulting partner specializing in integrity risks”, porn had been found on Mikkelson’s school computer and, more troublingly, sexually explicit messages that he had sent to students were discovered.
A photo of James Mikkelson posted in 2007 on a Facebook group he used to keep in contact with former students, called “Mikkelson’s Victims.”
Soon after Mikkelson’s firing was made public, a blog appeared online called “Survivors of James Mikkelson,” created by a former student who claims to be one of the teacher’s victims. In an introductory post, the former student writes that the blog is a place for survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated by James Mikkelson to “connect with one another, share their stories, and have their voices heard.”
In a comment underneath that post, another SAS alumnus accused the blog’s creator of defamation and of merely creating a hate page directed against Mikkelson.
About a week later, the blog’s creator responded to that assertion with a lengthy post, detailing allegations against Mikkelson that go far beyond just sexting with students, including sexual abuse, groping, and sexual intercourse.
Soon after I became his student, Mikkelson initiated explicit conversations with me about sex. These conversations occurred in person as well as through text, email, and chat. They soon escalated to expressing sexual desire for me and describing sexual fantasies involving me. While talking explicitly with a child about sex is in fact sufficient to constitute child sexual abuse, the abuse did not stop there. Mikkelson groped me at a school event. He sent me explicit photos and videos of himself. He invited me to locations outside of school where, after coaxing me into a relaxed state with alcohol that he purchased, he coerced me into performing sexual acts on him. He touched me sexually behind the closed doors of his classroom, on school property, in the middle of the school day. He had sexual intercourse with me. I was his student. I was a child.
At the time I did not have any adult figures in my life whom I trusted. Mikkelson very quickly became my primary source of emotional support. He expressed sympathy when I talked about difficulties with my family. He encouraged me to pursue my own academic interests over my parents’ preferences. He displayed obvious favoritism for me in the classroom, which made my teenage self feel special and valued. (This practice is known as grooming.) When he first began to express sexual desire for me, I was uncomfortable and unsure of how to respond. I soon grew accustomed to it because I placed in him the immense and naïve trust of a young person. I could not have believed that he did not have my best interests at heart. I looked up to him and wanted nothing more than his continued validation. He could have asked me to do anything. He did. He capitalized on my vulnerability and immaturity to perpetrate sexual abuse.
I have more evidence than I could possibly wish for of all of the above. I have emails full of sexual content. I have chatlogs that reveal the painstaking and gradual process of my being groomed. At first, Mikkelson tested the waters by dropping in one or two sexual comments per conversation; a few weeks later, he regaled me with pornographic descriptions of sexual fantasies. I reviewed these logs recently in considering whether or not to reach out to SAS, and found statements by Mikkelson that explicitly acknowledge many of the sexual acts that occurred between us. As relieved as I am to have concrete evidence of what happened to me, it was not a particularly pleasant read. It was revolting and excruciating, not just because of hindsight, but because I am now an adult pained by the knowledge that my child self could not have understood, and did not understand, what was really happening.
You can read the full post here.
Widely shared among the SAS community, the post attracted more than 60 comments from former and current students discussing Mikkelson, his behavior as a teacher, and the allegations made against him. When put together, these comments reveal a pattern of a favorite teacher using his power and influence to prey on vulnerable students, something which may have been going on for more than a decade.
We have picked out some thoughtful and revealing comments, beginning with one from a former teacher who laments that she never spoke up after Mikkelson allegedly sent her a nude pic:
Feel so sad and horrified on hearing this. I was teaching in SAS for many years. But I got to know Mikkelson during my master course. He was the workshop leader for UBD. At beginning I thought he was very kind and knowledgeable. And he added me in wechat and then we start chat for a few months. At beginning we talked about teaching methods and books. He did helped a lot in sharing his literature knowledge. As long as topic leading by him become deeper and personal, he described lots of sexual information from books and then his personal life. He did it in a quite nature way and seemed it’s not offended while talking those topics. He sent poems and said he wrote for me. I felt wired, but didn’t think further because we trust our colleagues. Then one day he sent one of his naked pic to me and I was so embarrassed and angry. When I pointed it’s inappropriate behavior, he was angry and immediately block me. I also deleted him as contact. He seemed to be a very kind and knowledge person, but he actually is evil. Then I left SAS, never contact him any more. But today my heart is totally in pain on seeing this blog. Hope the survivors can be healed. It’s not your fault, because he is good at disguised and pretend to be a great person. I feel deeply sorry on hearing this.
Another person who claimed to be Mikkelson’s former co-worker in Italy years ago left the following comment:
I work with Mikkelson in Milan many years ago. He was made to resign after many female students complained about his inappropriate behavior. In Milan the parents wanted him put in jail. In China they do not think the same I guess. We hear about this in Italy and call things what they are. This man is a child molester. Nothing more needs saying.
A former student remembers accusations from nearly a decade ago about Mikkelson’s inappropriate behavior towards his female students:
I guess it didn’t entirely surprise me when I heard that Mikkelson had been fired for sexual misconduct. Even back when was I at SAS nearly ten years ago, you’d hear little bits and pieces about how he’d text some of his favorite female students privately, give them nicknames, not to mention the the slightly creepy sexual innuendos he’d make here and there in class. Of course no one thought much of it, at our age. More importantly, we were blinded by the admiration and respect we had for him.
I was definitely one of the students who revered Mikkelson in high school. I mean, revered. I belonged to that category-naturally literary, awed by intellectualism, lacking a authority figure-over whom Mikkelson exercised the most power. Even today, he stands out as one of the teachers who had the profoundest effect on me in my entire life. Without question, if I were still in high school I’d be one of the first of his acolytes to defend him, question you, and probably attack you on your claims.
However, I’m fortunate enough to have spent enough time out of high school that his aura has long faded. Time and experience allow me to see clearly that his brilliance wasn’t in his teaching-in fact, as I learned in college, many of his ideas were plagiarized from books and other sources-but in his acting. His ability to play the part of Socrates, the philosopher, the grand drama of turning his classroom into an intellectual and moral academy-that where his genius lay. Behind the act wasn’t a great mind or soul; it was the predator you have exposed. I think for most graduates my age, it’s not that hard to see anymore.
I don’t really think I have a point to this post, except to show that you have another person, someone who once worshipped Mikkelson, who believes you. I can only imagine how many others there were over the years. You are intelligent and brave and you have my utmost respect.
A current SAS student describes the “cult of personality” Mikkelson built up around himself with his adoring students:
I am a senior at SAS this year, and I’ve only had Mikkelson for 3 months but I was definitly already in his “cult of personality,” as you described. I still remember when news broke of his dismissal, my fellow seniors and I bowed our heads and cussed the school for letting go “the only teacher who actually taught us.” The next day, the school arranged my AP Literature class to talk to the school psychologist and I remember people were crying and shouting at how unfair it was the school let him go in such a public manner, how our education is ruined, how his replacement was terrible.
Even I fell for it. I messaged him after his dismissal like many other seniors. Even then, I knew we all just craved that last bit of recognition from him. In particular, my message said that it was amazing to see me “blossom as a leader” in the classroom. I remember I felt myself tearing up after I saw his message because I felt like my education had really no purpose. This cult of personality he has created around him is trly terrifying. Reading your website was like waking up from a nightmare and realzing how naive I was.
I am truly disgusted at how easy I fell for his scheme. I am so horrified at myself that I thought it was incredibly unfair that the school fired him or that people were turning against him. I cannot belive it took me this long to realize the toxicity of his behaviour, at how inconsiderate we were in not ever asking ourselves the wellbeing of his victims. How can we move on from idolizing him as a “Socrates” philosopher? How do we get pass this cult of personality that has influenced all our lives?
I am so incredibly sorry that you had to go through that. Nobody, and I mean nobody, should have to go through abuse by a trusted adult figure in a time of self doubt and self realization. If theres anything current SAS students can do, please let me know and I will relay that to my class.
A former student who claims that Mikkelson sent her sexually suggestive messages a decade ago:
I know you said you’re not seeking validation, but I still wanted to share another data point: I believe you because I could have been you. I recognize everything in your post: the favoritism and praise meant to soften me up, the surreptitious request for my phone number, the sexually suggestive comments peppered throughout emails and texts to test the waters. I remember my discomfort at his messages, and I remember brushing that off because I felt almost grateful for his attention. I was so insecure and hungry for recognition. I’ve only recently been capable of recognizing all the insidious ways he took advantage of that.
It never escalated past messages for me and I’ll probably never know why. Maybe he found a more vulnerable target elsewhere – I certainly wasn’t the only student he was messaging that year. It was an open secret, so poorly kept it was practically a joke.
More than anything though, I want to apologize. Mikkelson was my teacher ten years ago. Maybe this would’ve ended ten years ago if I’d said something.
Another former student with a similar story to tell:
Thank you for sharing your story. I, too, had numerous exchanges with Mikkelson during my senior year of high school, most of which I was severely depressed. He was well aware of the fact as I had numerous private meetings with him where we would just ‘talk about life’, most of which would end with me crying. At times our emails would traverse into sexual territory or become uncomfortable for me, Mikkelson would often remark on how ‘pretty and smart’ I was and how everyone who was giving me a hard time had no idea what they were looking past. He knew that I was vulnerable and that I would feed off of the compliments seeing as they were all I had at that time in my life.
Though this relationship never went past flirtartious emails and book recommendations till my sophomore year of college, I feel stupid for buying into his bullshit. The fact that students held him in their worship is so sick and the superiority complex he uses to gain ‘respect’ was merely a facade for his own fucked up ego.
James Mikkelson in better days.
In response to the blog post, a group of SAS alumni have penned an open letter to the school and community, publicly voicing their support for those speaking out and pressuring the SAS administration to “take steps toward preventing Mikkelson’s hiring at other educational institutions.” Those alumni who agree with the letter’s message are encouraged to put their name in the Google Doc. The letter currently has dozens of signatures.
Responding to enquiries from Shanghaiist, a spokesperson for SAS said the school revoked Mikkelson’s China work visa upon dismissal on November 7th, and shared evidence of his illicit behavior with legal authorities in both China and the US.
While Mikkelson was in his 13th consecutive year of service at SAS, reports about Mikkelson’s inappropriate contacts with students only came to light at the school this September, added the spokesperson.
Before hiring employees, SAS says that it conducts extensive backgrounds checks, including FBI background checks and references are required from previous supervisors.
One factor complicating the case is the fact that the age of consent in China is 14. Chinese law also makes no distinction between a teacher and any other adult, school administrators say.
Profile picture on James Mikkelson’s abandoned Instagram account.
By contrast, under US law, an American citizen can be prosecuted for having sex with a minor overseas. In the state of Washington, where Mikkelson is purportedly from, teachers who engage in sexual activity with a student can be charged with a felony or gross misdemeanor.
Meanwhile, SAS has responded to the blog post with another letter to parents and former students, informing them of measures that are being taken following Mikkelson’s dismissal, including offering counseling to students and reviewing all protocols related to child protection.
“We recognize that if the allegations in the blog are true, then great harm has been done,” wrote Gauthier, the Head of School. “Know that we have done all we can to ensure that Mr. Mikkelson does not teach again and to warn our community against having contact with him. Our goal is to have a concrete plan in place and shared with the SAS community before our winter holiday break.”
“We have certainly responded with great care to anyone who has written us on the topic of Mr. Mikkelson’s departure and invited them to share further,” added Gauthier. “To date, no alumnus has come forward and identified themselves. We stand ready to support them if and when they do.”
It remains unclear if he has returned home to the United States, or exited China to a third country.
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