good times local news media events catalyst santa cruz california metro silicon valley news local events san jose weekly pajaronian watsonville local newspaper, news events pajaro valley california gilroy dispatch local news events garlic festival santa cruz media events local california weekly king city rustler newspaper media local events car sales buy new car media
56.9 F
Morgan Hill
English English Spanish Spanish
February 24, 2020

MHUSD settles negligence claim for $750K

Plaintiffs say district allowed employee to sexually abuse victims

The Morgan Hill Unified School District quietly settled a lawsuit with an alleged sexual assault victim last year for $750,000. 

District staff confirmed that the board of trustees approved the settlement with “Jane Doe 3” in August 2019. The settlement followed a July 29 mediation session in which attorneys for the female juvenile and two other plaintiffs sat with attorneys for the district.

The mediation was an attempt to resolve a lawsuit filed in early 2019 by the families of three child plaintiffs against the school district, South Valley Dance Arts and Kevin Cole. The lawsuit accuses the school district of negligence in allowing Cole, a drama production contractor, to sexually abuse the plaintiffs at various times in recent years on the Sobrato High School campus.

Robert Allard, attorney for the three alleged assault victims, noted that long before the lawsuit was filed, at least two female children had complained to teachers or other district staff that Cole had sexually harassed them. The staff members did not report Cole to the police as the law requires, according to Allard. 

Cole was later arrested and convicted following separate accusations of sexual misconduct toward children. 

“(The) entire matter was covered up because school administrators decided to support (Cole), with whom his supervisor was close friends, and disregard the children,” Allard said. “As a result, our client was needlessly sexually abused and the district was forced to pay $750,000.”

District staff declined to comment on the settlement, as the lawsuit is still active. The other two female plaintiffs are still suing the district, South Valley Dance Arts and Cole. Allard doesn’t expect the case to go to trial before this fall.

Cole, 37, of Newark, was convicted in 2018 of misdemeanor annoying and molesting a child in relation to an incident when he was backstage for an South Valley Dance production of The Nutcracker at Sobrato High School in late 2017. During the production, Cole was accused of inappropriately touching female child performers while helping them change costumes backstage.

A parent called Morgan Hill Police, who arrested Cole as he was leaving Sobrato’s theater the night of Dec. 1, 2017. A jury found Cole guilty in June 2018 of victimizing one of the girls who accused him of sexual abuse.

That victim is not among the three plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed by Allard’s firm. Two of the plaintiffs alleged that Cole’s abuse took place during the Nutcracker performance, according to the lawsuit filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court.

The plaintiffs have also accused South Valley Dance of negligence because the nonprofit company allegedly failed to institute safeguards and procedures that could have prevented someone like Cole from assaulting the children, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also claims that going back to 2014, Cole had been the subject of a history of  complaints to district staff. At least two female Sobrato High students complained that Cole had inappropriately touched and spoken to them, but district staff did not report these allegations to police, the lawsuit states.

State law considers public school employees mandatory reporters of alleged child abuse, according to the victims’ lawsuit. Allard said the $750,000 settlement outcome regarding one of the plaintiffs serves as a “lesson” to school officials.

“If you suspect that a child under your care is being sexually abused, don’t investigate. Don’t interview. Don’t weigh the evidence,” Allard said. “The law mandates that you call the professionals who will conduct an unbiased and objective inquiry. Only when mandated-reporter laws are followed are kids best protected from predators.”

Cole was an employee in Sobrato High School’s drama department at the time of the students’ complaints. He continued to be employed by the district until 2016, according to testimony in the 2018 criminal trial.

At the time of the 2017 Nutcracker performance, Cole was a drama lighting and sound contractor approved by the district for productions on campus. The district recommended that South Valley Dance use him for their production of The Nutcracker, reads the Jane Does’ lawsuit.

Attorneys for Cole and South Valley Dance did not return phone calls requesting comment. South Valley Dance staff have previously argued that the school district gave them no choice but to use Cole as their lighting and sound technician for the production at Sobrato.

Please leave a comment