Thursday, September 27, 2012


Bob Walsh said that “Failure to perform a legally required duty can bite you and the taxpayers hard.”

Apparently the administrators of this California school district failed to learn anything from the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals.

By Malaika Fraley and Matthias Gafni

Contra Costa Times
September 26, 2012

MORAGA -- A Walnut Creek woman sexually abused by two Moraga middle school teachers in the 1990s is suing the school district and three former administrators, saying they repeatedly ignored allegations of abuse over a two-year period, allowing her and many other students to be victimized.

Kristen Cunnane, 30, filed a civil complaint Tuesday in Contra Costa Superior Court against the Moraga School District, retired Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School principal Bill Walters, retired assistant principal Paul Simonin and retired superintendent John Cooley. By turning "a blind eye" to evidence of sexual abuse, it alleges, those officials fostered an environment in which teachers preyed on children without consequence.

The lawsuit alleges negligence, fraudulent concealment, conspiracy to commit fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The complaint cites an investigation by this newspaper as revealing for the first time the district's knowledge of the alleged abuse. The day after a school district lawyer made available documents detailing the district's failure to report the allegations to law enforcement, Walters, who was principal of another Moraga elementary school at the time, submitted his letter of resignation. He left the district July 1.

Cunnane, the assistant head coach of the UC Berkeley women's swim team, reported to police in 2010 that she had been raped and sexually battered more than 100 times, stalked and threatened by Joaquin Moraga P.E. teacher Julie Correa over a four-year period beginning in 1996. Cunnane was then a 14-year-old eighth-grader at the school.

Correa, now 44, was living with her husband and two sons in the Salt Lake City area when she was arrested in August 2010; she was eventually charged with 23 felony sex crimes. After pleading no contest to four of the counts last year, Correa is serving an eight-year prison sentence at Valley State Prison.

Cunnane filed a claim last month against the Moraga School District; the district denied it Aug. 13.

"We are obviously disappointed that the school district was not willing to take responsibility for its actions," said Paul Llewellyn, Cunnane's attorney.

In Tuesday's lawsuit, Cunnane alleges she had been groomed starting at age 11 by Correa to be a victim. But Cunnane says Correa began the abuse only after Cunnane confided that she had been molested by science teacher Dan Witters in his classroom.

This newspaper's investigation, published earlier this year, revealed that a teenage girl, whose name was redacted in documents, contacted Walters in 1994 to report she had been sexually abused by Witters while attending Joaquin Moraga in 1990. The girl wrote in a letter to Walters that she was coming forward to prevent Witters from harming other girls.

Instead of passing the allegations on to law enforcement, as required by law, Walters sat on the complaint for two months before showing the girl's letter to Witters -- revealing the girl's identity to her alleged abuser. Witters denied the allegations. A district memo says Walters shared the girl's letter with vice principal Simonin, and the two administrators decided "not to pursue the issue," according to district records.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Moraga schools Superintendent Bruce Burns and Simonin both said they did not know about the lawsuit and therefore had no comment. Walters and Cooley could not be reached for comment.

Public outcry led to the district this summer creating a student safety committee, which recommended modifications to mandated reporting and child abuse prevention protocols.

For Cunnane, reading the girl's 1994 letter was one of her "hardest days," the swim coach said in an interview.

"It was like I could see myself in that girl who wrote that letter, and she was so brave to write that letter," Cunnane said. "And then to see the paper trail and how it was handled ... it made me feel like I couldn't breathe. The abuse was one betrayal, and the way it was handled was another betrayal."

Others complained about Witters in the two years after the unidentified girl's letter. A March 16, 1995, memo from Correa to Walters reported she had witnessed and been told about Witters kissing, licking and touching students inappropriately.

"Julie should have been fired for not reporting the abuse" to law enforcement, which could've prevented her own abuse, Cunnane said.

Instead, three months after Correa's memo, then-Superintendent Cooley sent Witters a letter regarding aspects of his "performance." Cooley also told Witters that "correction of these problems" was important to Witters' "teaching and to the District,'" the complaint alleges.

"Whether stemming from a calculated intent to protect Witters and themselves from liability at the expense of abused children, or simply as a result of incredibly poor decision-making, District employees and administrators ... enabled sexual abuse through their callous inaction," the suit claims.

"The recent sexual abuse scandals engulfing the Catholic Church and the Penn State athletics program have highlighted the prevalence of organizational cultures that choose to protect their own rather than protect the innocent," the suit alleges. "As the newly discovered documents reveal, the District is no different than Penn State or the Catholic Church."

When Correa saw the district take little or no action against complaints of sexual abuse and harassment by a teacher, she used Witters as an excuse to get closer to the girl, "and ultimately to begin her own abuse of Ms. Cunnane," the suit alleges.

Administrators finally called police and suspended Witters in November 1996 after seven more female students reported they were sexually abused or harassed by the science teacher. Within days, Witters killed himself by driving off a cliff near Big Sur.

By this time, Correa was raping Cunnane, then a freshman in high school. Cunnane says Correa used Witters' death to further intimidate Cunnane into remaining silent about the abuse.

Cunnane has since suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety, depression, dissociative identity disorder, amnesia, obsessive compulsive disorder, suicidal inclinations and severe emotional distress, her suit alleges.

"I'm proud of how I'm doing, considering all of this," Cunnane said. "But I can't go 20 minutes without remembering what happened to me."

She said she sued to make sure this doesn't happen again.

"When it can get stopped," Cunnane said, "it needs to get stopped."

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