“I didn’t want him to return to Lincoln [High School],’ says Julie Page of her late son Nathan, “because Lincoln destroyed my son.”
At the end of his life, Nathan Page dismissed the loyalty of friends who cared deeply about him. In a fit of pique, he unfriended many of them on Facebook and attacked them in angry texts and emails before he killed himself.
Page, a 28-year-old special education teacher, was battling depression, which muddled the bedrock religious beliefs that had guided him since high school. Except for his mother, few escaped his wrath as he neared his final breakdown. His targets included close friends and members of the Santee church where he worshiped the last seven years of his life.
What made him lose hope?
Photo courtesy of Julie Page
His depression was compounded by alienation. He accused friends of not supporting him in his internecine dispute with the San Diego Unified School District over the rights of his disabled students. He laid out his grievances in long, tedious emails and texts he sent to dozens of friends at all hours of the night. Often the messages went unread and unanswered, disregarded as work related matters that did not involve the recipients. The seeming lack of interest by his friends wounded Page.
“I don’t feel supported and I don’t feel cared for,” he wrote in March 2017 to leaders of Pathways Community Church. “But what the hell am I doing going to a church where I feel like I don’t have anybody in my corner anymore. I wish each of you the best. I have deleted your phone numbers. I have deleted nearly all [church] members from my Facebook.”
Six months later, while driving on the serpentine Ortega Highway in Riverside County, Page steered his car off the roadway and 200 feet down a steep embankment. He was not wearing a seatbelt. He was ejected from the vehicle, landing 50 feet away, and pronounced dead at Inland Valley Regional Medical Center in Temecula on September 12.
His mother and friends believe he committed suicide; a suprising act considering his deeply held religious beliefs. Though he had talked about killing himself and mentioned suicide before, everyone was surprised that he went through with it. They all expected when push came to shove that his faith would pull him back from the brink of self destruction.
Julie Page said Nathan’s frustration caused him to take two stress leaves in his last year at Lincoln.
Page’s life made a gradual descent into a dark and corrosive place in his last two years at Lincoln High School, where he taught until the spring of 2017. It was a period marked by constant battles with school and district officials who often pushed back on Page’s demands on behalf of students whom he believed were treated unfairly. The children he instructed were categorized as moderate to severely disabled.
He believed passionately that some of his students had progressed enough to be placed in classes for those with mild to moderate disabilities and deserved a chance to earn a diploma. Few kids classified with moderate to severe disabilities are awarded a diploma.
“If I had to summarize the last two years I would say they are by far the worst 2 years of my life. I have contemplated suicide a number of times due to the fact that I feel I’m failing so many students because they are misdiagnosed,” he said in an email to a friend in March 2017.
The email was a hint of the alienation that was enveloping him. His life was becoming the plot line of a Greek tragedy with him as the protagonist — a person of high morals and principles whose fate is nonetheless sealed. His unraveling was set in motion by a combination of external forces beyond his control and personal failings — real or imagined — that were difficult to confront.
Julie Page said her son walked away from his teaching position at Lincoln and in July moved to Temecula with her to begin his life anew. He killed himself after his second day as a special education teacher at a K-8 school in Lake Elsinore.
“I didn’t want him to return to Lincoln, because Lincoln destroyed my son. On the other hand, I didn’t want him to give up his teaching, because he was so good at it,” said Julie Page.
Julie Page believed her son cut ties with San Diego Unified School District when he left Lincoln. But two months after Nathan Page’s death, the district sent a letter to his estate and “to whom it may concern” asking for a reimbursement of $2,697.13 for salary that he was allegedly overpaid. “We regret this overpayment and any inconvenience it may have caused you,” said the letter.
Page’s two passions were Christianity and social justice; each was a calling and the latter became a ministry of sorts. Lincoln was a perfect place for his ministry. The campus demographics are overwhelmingly Hispanic, African-American, and Pacific Islander, many from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. In an email about oppression and justice he sent to friends, Page quoted from scripture: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream! When the oppressed face injustice they cry out for mercy.”
His ascetic lifestyle and eschewing of material comforts brought him closer to his students, friends said. If there was anything in abundance in his Santee condo, it was theology books, they said.
A friend and fellow teacher said “Nathan’s paycheck was less important than his students.”
“I think he was kind of in the right place [as a special education teacher]. Nathan is always an advocate for the underdog,” said Mike Gilson, executive pastor of Pathways Community Church, where Page spent at least six hours a week worshiping and involved in various activities. “He would take some of the misfit kids and some of the kids that other people didn’t want. He understood their needs and would be an advocate for them. That was a great strength Nathan had, the ability to be there for those kids.”
Gilson became friends with Page through his son, who was Page’s classmate at Point Loma Nazarene University for four years. After graduation, he allowed Page to move in with his family for two years while he student-taught and pursued a master’s degree at Point Loma. Gilson, who mentored Page, was one of the people who had been unfriended by him before he died. He delivered a eulogy at his memorial service.
Julie Page, a Temecula attorney, said that “before things got really bad” her son “would call me to tell me about his day and the neat things the kids would say to him.
“He encouraged their friendship and they showed a lot of love for him and vice versa. He loved his students,” Page said. “I can say this quite divorced from the fact that I’m his mother; I don’t think I’ve known anyone in my life that lived his faith like Nathan.”
Educators who knew or worked with Page agreed to be interviewed but not for attribution. Aware of the adversarial relationship between Page and school officials, they fear retribution from administrators if they speak in support of him. Some cried when they reminisced about Page. They say his final battle at Lincoln — one he lost which may have been the catalyst for his suicide — was on behalf of a student who was allegedly sexually assaulted in a school restroom. The victim, a 17-year-old non-verbal male, was allegedly sodomized by a male classmate on August 3, 2016 as he stood at a urinal. The victim’s pants and underwear were on the floor as were the alleged attacker’s pants when they were discovered. A source who is familiar with the incident described the suspect as a “trusted high functional student” who had been placed in the moderate-to-severe class. Generally, students placed in a moderate-to-severe class have significant developmental delays, an IQ less than 70, and problems with adaptive behavior and living skills.
The alleged sexual assault occurred during summer school when the students had another teacher, but the victim was Page’s student whom he knew well.
A report of the incident written by the teacher said a male aide summoned her to the boys’ restroom with the admonition “this is serious you have to come in here.” Her report said the aide asked the alleged attacker, “How long have you been having sex with boys?”
The source familiar with details of the incident said the aide did not see penetration but saw “flesh-to-flesh contact.”
A “suspected child abuse report” filed by the teacher the following day said the alleged attacker “was attempting to have sex with [the] victim in the boys’ bathroom.’’ School police officers were called and their findings would be forwarded to San Diego Police, said the teacher’s report.
Educators and school district employees say the incident was mishandled by campus administrators, the district, and school police. District officials declined to comment about the alleged assault, because it has led to a claim against the district by the victim’s mother and is usually the first step in the filing of a lawsuit. They also chose not to comment about Page and his experience at Lincoln.
Eileen Alai Sofa, mother of the victim, was interviewed recently in the family’s La Mesa apartment after undergoing dialysis treatment. She lives there with her son and two teenage daughters. Sofa said she was summoned to school immediately after the alleged assault, along with the suspect’s mother. The teacher told her both boys had their pants off but “[the aide] didn’t see anything happen.” The following day she had another meeting with a school district police officer and “other teachers,” Sofa said.
Eileen Alai Sofa filed a claim against the city and San Diego Unified charging them with botching the investigation of a sexual assault on her disabled son.
She was again told that the teacher’s aide walked in on the boys but did not see anything happen, said Sofa. She was advised of her rights as a parent and asked what she wanted done.
“I said if the boy didn’t do anything to my son I would like for the boy to get help. On top of that I don’t want him near my son,” she said. No forensic evidence was obtained in the incident. Later, Sofa said she was troubled when her daughter, who also attends Lincoln, told her that the suspect was still in her son’s class.
More than a year later, a local television reporter began asking questions about the incident to San Diego Police. Sofa was surprised last fall when she was contacted by San Diego detectives who wanted to talk to her about the case. At a meeting at a Starbuck’s on Euclid Avenue, Sofa said two detectives asked her if she “wanted to move forward [with an investigation] or leave it alone.”
“I thought the case was closed. I told the detective the boy didn’t do anything to my son. He didn’t push me to sign any papers, but he did give me papers to close the case,” she said. Sofa said she did not read the document before signing it and did not receive a copy.
A San Diego Police spokesman declined to comment because of the pending litigation that also names the city as culpable. But a law enforcement official noted the sensitivity and complexity of the case. He cited the boys’ ages and their learning disabilities. Even if the alleged perpetrator is guilty should he be punished? If so how? And will he understand why he is being punished?
Two days after Sofa’s meeting with police the television reporter called her with new details about the incident, leading her to believe her son had been sexually assaulted. Sofa hired an attorney and filed a claim against the city and school district charging them with botching the investigation.
“It makes me angry, because I send my child to school and they’re supposed to protect the kids, especially my son. He can’t talk for himself. Everybody in that office at Lincoln High knew what happened to my son,” she said.
After learning about the alleged assault, Sofa said she mentioned the suspect’s name to her son and asked what the boy did to him.
“He looked away. He pointed down there [to his rectal area]. I have so much anger towards this kid [suspect],” said Sofa.
Sofa learned about Page’s death at about the same time she learned of the alleged sexual assault. In the interview with the San Diego Reader, she cried as she talked about Page and the impact he had on her son.
The Ortega Highway winds over the mountains from Lake Elsinore to San Juan Capistrano. Authorities determined Nathan Page most likely drove his car down this embankment intentionally.
“Mr. Page was always there for my son. He would take time to talk to me when I picked him up and tell me about him and the other students. Oh, he and this other student did this and they made progress. Or they had too much fun today. His first priority was his students. If there was a problem with my son that he couldn’t correct he’d call me and tell me how to explain it to [the boy]. Whenever my son would forget his backpack Mr. Page would drive to my home and drop it off after school. How many teachers do that for their students? I heard he committed suicide and it just broke my heart,” said Sofa.
Friends said Page referred to the suspect as “the rapist,” and eight months after the incident he was still pushing school and district officials to take action against the alleged attacker.
A very close friend who was used as a sounding board by Page said the incident was “all of a sudden a new battle” that Page took on. “He’s thinking of students and teachers. What happened to the perpetrator? Is he getting help or is he just being moved to another district unknown to administrators and families [at the new school],” said the man.
Page was frustrated by the way the special education curriculum was run at Lincoln, said the friend. Administrators in key posts had no experience in special education. In the year before Page resigned, four of six special education teachers left or quit. Page asked for a transfer but was denied, the friend said.
Julie Page said Nathan’s frustration caused him to take two stress leaves in his last years at Lincoln. The problems brewing on campus increased his stress and anxiety, landing him in hospital emergency rooms on a couple of occasions because of chest pains and high blood pressure.
Page took up the cudgels for his disabled students but “he couldn’t change the world,” said an educator who knew him.
The friend who was Page’s confidant said this realization began sinking in in late 2016, when he advocated for a Pacific Islander student he wanted reassessed for possible promotion to a mild to moderate class. The district and school administrators refused to re-evaluate the boy.
“This caused him to question if other students were misplaced. Nathan basically said he was going to fight for this student and all these [other] students he had a question about,” said the friend.
Undaunted, Page put together a list of 16 students with intellectual disabilities placed in moderate-to-severe classes. He explained each child’s capabilities which he argued qualified them to be reassessed for possible transfers to mild-to-moderate classes. He was rebuffed again.
In March and April 2017 he redoubled on his effort to get his Pacific Islander student reassessed. Page said the child was misdiagnosed.
“The student was initially labeled intellectually disabled because he couldn’t speak English yet was assessed in English, thereby preventing him from getting a score high enough to not be considered as having [an] intellectual disability,” he said in an email to the teachers’ union. He also noted that the boy’s assessment was made in elementary school. But Page was unable to get the student reassessed, not even with the union’s help.
“I hope that you see I’m fighting for the rights of my student because it is the Christian thing to do, not because I’m trying to be a thorn in your side,” he said in another email to a San Diego Education Association representative.
It was around this time that Page stopped taking medication for his depression. Julie Page said he ignored pleas from her and other family members to stay medicated. Nathan explained that he “wanted to feel again,” she said.
Page’s close personal friend whom he confided in said he went off the medication because it mellowed and relaxed him.
“Nathan off his meds had extra aggression and felt more empowered to speak his mind. He felt more confident to battle for the rights of his students because the Nathan everyone knows is so polite. He realized, ‘I’ve been polite long enough,” and everyone started seeing a very aggressive, in-your-face Nathan,” said the friend.
Page’s newly found aggression was evident in an opinion that he wrote in an email to other teachers about a union representative. The subject line was “what I would like to say” to the SDEA official whom he believed did a poor job of representing him in his battles with Lincoln administrators.
“Hopefully you repent of your cowardice and fear and grow a pair of balls or some ovaries… whatever it is that will make you stand up for what’s right. Repent or find a new job asshole,” Page wrote.
Off his depression medication Page launched a blitz of texts and emails about his battles at Lincoln. Gilson was among those who were filled with dread when their cell phones pinged, afraid that it was another long, rambling text from Page.
“The problem was people cared about Nathan, and they cared that something was going on, but most people did not see themselves in a place where they could help him. I just didn’t have time to read them. A lot of them dealt with facts and details for the third or fourth time,” said Gilson.
Gilson said he never told Page to stop texting, but others blocked his texts and emails. Nobody wanted to hurt his feelings by telling him to stop.
Page’s confidant said he “wanted people to understand what he was up against but wasn’t comprehending that it was too much for people, and they couldn’t understand what he was trying to explain.”
The friend said he too was at the receiving end of Page’s derisive emails but still “gave him as much support as I could.”
Page’s friends asked Gilson and other church leaders to speak to him about the text messages and emails. Page apologized and announced he was unfriending them from Facebook. “I find it funny that I thought my sins would lead to me being ostracized by the church. I never imagined it would be over something as petty as emails that people can simply delete or skip reading,” he said in an email.
Page’s flirtation with suicide was known to friends who were never quite sure if he was serious. He told them about driving 90 miles per hour on the freeway without his seat belt fastened, hoping to die in an accident, but ended that plan because he did not want to hurt innocent victims. He also told about the time he drove to the Coronado Bridge with plans of jumping into the water. He stopped on the bridge but was told by a highway worker to move on. He obeyed.
It has been five months since her son’s death and Julie Page still spends long stretches of her day crying and grieving. After much soul searching, she has accepted that Nathan killed himself. Two days before he died, Nathan came into her bedroom and asked if he could lie next to her until she fell asleep. Looking back, she believes that may have been a cry for help.
“He always told me he would never do anything like that. He didn’t want to hurt me. Obviously, the pain was too intense he couldn’t remember who he would be hurting in this process. He had no reason to be on the Ortega Highway. Maybe he planned it ahead. I don’t know.”
Page’s breadth of friends was on display at his memorial service. They came from as far away as Philadelphia and South America.
“He had already started mending his relationships with people that had seen him act kind of weird,” said Julie Page.
Though beliefs regarding suicide and salvation are more nuanced than they once were — taking into account mental health and emotional state — the act is still considered a sin in most Christian denominations. At the end, did Page lose his faith, and will he still be rewarded with the eternal life with God for which Christians hope?
Pastor Gilson believes his friend is among the chosen.
“I don’t question his faith at all. He never wavered in that when he would be down or upset. I’ve seen people rail against God. Nathan never did that. People, if they get to a place where they’re going to do it... [if] somebody may be unhealthy enough to finally make that decision.... What we believe in our faith is that if you’ve got a relationship with Christ and you’re going to make a stupid decision and do something like that, that doesn’t mean no, sorry now you’re going to go to hell. I completely believe Nathan is in heaven.”