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Former students say a California school district 'ignored and concealed' sexual abuse

Matt Drange   

Former students say a California school district 'ignored and concealed' sexual abuse
  • Three former students have filed suit, saying a SoCal school district failed to protect them from "rampant" sexual abuse.
  • The lawsuit comes after Business Insider revealed decades of sexual misconduct by educators at Rosemead High.

A group of sexual abuse survivors have filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court, saying their high school district failed to protect them from predatory teachers for years.

The lawsuit, filed by three former students at Rosemead High, claims that district officials created a "toxic" culture on campus where "sexual abuse by educators is rampant." Administrators failed to properly supervise employees, the lawsuit claims, and repeatedly "ignored and concealed the sexual abuse of minor students."

The plaintiffs in the suit, which cites Business Insider's investigation of sexual misconduct at the Southern California high school, include a pair of former students BI previously identified as L. and Clara. L. said she had a yearslong sexual relationship with her tennis coach Wing Chan while she was a student, while Clara said she was groped and sexually harassed by social science teacher Alex Rai for much of her senior year. A third woman, identified only as a Jane Doe, said she was sexually harassed and groped by her track coach, Eduardo Escobar, as a freshman.

Escobar, who resigned in 2008 following a district investigation of his conduct with multiple female students, denied sexually harassing and groping students but said "it was probably my fault that I didn't put enough distance between me and the athletes."

The lawsuit follows the resignation of multiple Rosemead teachers and the launch of a criminal investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

"Our office has litigated against school districts for years. I've never seen another situation where, from top to bottom, the staff is trained in a way that violates the law," said attorney Michael Carrillo, who brought the case. "It's about protecting the interests of the school district over protecting children." In 2019, Carrillo secured a $5 million verdict against a teacher and the El Monte Union High School District (EMUHSD), which oversees Rosemead High, in a sexual misconduct case involving a teacher at another school.

District superintendent Edward Zuniga declined to comment. Chan, who for the past 15 years has worked at the LA County Probation Department, did not respond to requests for comment. Rai, who resigned in 2022 following a district investigation into his relationships with Clara and other female students, did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the district has opened an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct involving at least one current Rosemead High educator in the wake of BI's reporting. Special education teacher Edwin Reyes Villegas was put on leave in October, documents show; two people interviewed as part of the investigation said Villegas's relationship with a female student in 2022 was the focal point of the inquiry. Villegas did not respond to requests for comment.

Former Rosemead choir director David Pitts was also placed on leave in October from his job at nearby Gabrielino High School, after parents and community members complained to administrators about his conduct with students. As BI reported, Pitts established a relationship with his former piano accompanist, Cindy, that included shoulder massages and intimate conversations when she was a student and became sexual soon after she graduated.

Gabrielino's head of human resources, Ross Perry, said he expected the investigation of Pitts to conclude "before the end of the school year," but declined to answer other questions. Pitts didn't respond to requests for comment.

A group of current Rosemead students, meanwhile, have met regularly with administrators for the past 18 months to discuss an anti-grooming curriculum they hope will be implemented districtwide. The group has dubbed itself the Ceanothus Council Against Child Grooming, named after a native California shrub known for its resilience. Students didn't hide their frustration during an emotional school board meeting in October, when an alum, Kristy, spoke publicly for the first time about her experience having a sexual relationship with a teacher.

BI is only identifying Cindy and Kristy by their first names.

"The district is only willing to do as much as it takes to postulate the idea of transparency or reform," said Sofia Hernandez, the school board's student representative, who is a member of the Ceanothus group. "We ask EMUHSD to make a clear and explicit effort towards transparency, towards actual efforts to educate teachers and students. We ask for the bare minimum."

Ripple effects across the nation

BI's coverage of sexual abuse in schools has prompted many other former students to take action across the country.

In Loudoun County, Virginia, an alum of Broad Run High School, who asked to go by their middle name, Lee, had spent the decade since they graduated in 2012 grappling with how to come forward about their experience being sexually abused.

Lee said they were groomed by their marching band instructor, William Riddell, for a sexual relationship that began during their junior year. Riddell would drive Lee to his parents' house, where he used the basement to give private music lessons. But it wasn't until another of Riddell's students died by suicide in 2012 that Lee began to question the relationship. A school staffer later told Lee that investigators had discovered inappropriate text messages Riddell sent their classmate. "That's when everything shattered for me," Lee said. "I realized that I was not special."

After speaking to BI about their experience, Lee couldn't shake the feeling that something needed to be done. They connected with others who had witnessed Riddell's behavior with teenagers and spoke with a Fairfax County Police detective. Then things began to snowball.

In February, Lee met with a prosecutor from the Virginia Attorney's General office, a meeting invitation shows. The prosecutor shared that they'd executed a search warrant at Riddell's home and discovered extensive child pornography, Lee recalled, including a digital folder with Lee's name on it.

On March 30, Riddell was arrested on multiple counts of reproduction and possession of child pornography; Riddell was released on bond earlier this week and a preliminary hearing in his case is scheduled for July.

Spokespeople for Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares and the Fairfax County Police Department declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing investigation. Neither Riddell nor his attorney responded to requests for comment.

"Part of me feels validated. It's something I've been saying for 10 years," Lee said. "But if this had been addressed 10 years ago, maybe others wouldn't have been hurt."

In St. Louis County, Missouri, a former student of journalism teacher Erin Sucher O'Grady, who asked to go by only an initial, B., decided to report the instructor's sexual relationship with another student after seeing a BI call-out seeking such tips. She reported to district officials that her classmate had been groomed for sex by Sucher O'Grady, an award winning teacher at Clayton High School, when she was a student in the early 2010s. The relationship had gnawed at B. for years.

In late 2022, district officials opened an investigation of Sucher O'Grady, documents show. In January 2023, assistant superintendent Tony Arnold confirmed that the district had substantiated multiple policy violations by the teacher, including her communications with students. Sucher O'Grady resigned as part of a separation agreement and admitted no liability; she declined to discuss the district's investigation.

B. said that BI's reporting on sexual abuse in public schools was "instrumental to me deciding that something should be done" about her former teacher.

Back in Southern California, when another former high school student, who asked to go by only an initial, K., got in touch with BI in February of last year, she was wracked by doubt. After reading about how a Rosemead High journalism teacher, Eric Burgess, had groomed multiple teenage girls for sex, she'd begun to unpack her relationship with her Laguna Beach High School English teacher David Brobeck, which she said became sexual after she graduated in the late 2010s.

"I had a big crush on him, and I think other girls did, too," K. explained. "I'd just say he was handsome, and everyone thought it was funny."

K. recalled being drawn to Brobeck's charm and reputation as one of the school's most popular teachers. After graduation, K. would return to the school to run at the track. One day, Brobeck requested that she add him on Instagram. Their conversations quickly became sexual, K. said, and Brobeck confided that he'd always liked her as a student. Then he kissed her.

In August 2023, K. reported the relationship to the Laguna Beach Unified School District, which hired the private investigative firm Nicole Miller and Associates — the same firm that investigated Burgess at Rosemead in 2019 — to investigate Brobeck. Brobeck resigned in March of this year and will receive $80,000 in severance per the terms of his confidential agreement with the district, in which he admitted no wrongdoing; Brobeck declined to comment for this story.

At least one educator named in BI's nationwide investigation of sexual misconduct in schools is no longer around students. After leaving a job as PE teacher in the Lake Washington School District outside of Seattle, Scott Nelson was coaching basketball in the Issaquah school district. He'd resigned from the Lake Washington district in early 2023 following a district investigation that had identified a "pattern of inappropriate behavior" with students.

After BI's story appeared in December, Issaquah officials read his disciplinary file from Lake Washington for the first time. Nelson told BI he was soon informed that he would not be coaching again this year.

An Issaquah school district spokesperson said Nelson was a volunteer coach and that he did not disclose any of the allegations in his personnel file when he applied to work there. "We chose to rescind the opportunity to volunteer as a result of the failure to disclose the investigation," the spokesperson said.

Nelson described the documents as a "total misrepresentation of my career" and denied sexually harassing students. He said he is appealing the decision and wants to continue coaching.

"The HR person said it was too risky, so we don't want you to coach anymore," he said. "I told her, 'Look, if I had issues like this, do you really think I'd get involved in a school again?'"

Lax federal oversight

BI's reporting identified several states that lack the so-called "Pass the Trash" laws that the federal Department of Education has called on them to implement. In 16 states, school districts require only a criminal background check, with no further backgrounding of past misconduct allegations, which often do not generate legal proceedings.

Yet the federal Department of Education appears to have no plans to change the status quo. A department spokesperson said the federal law forbidding school employees from providing a recommendation for a teacher they have probable cause to believe engaged in sexual misconduct with a student "prohibits the Department from mandating, directing, or controlling specific state or local measures responsive to this provision."

After initially agreeing to discuss BI's findings, the spokesperson declined to make anyone available for an interview. In a written statement, the spokesperson said, "Education leaders have a responsibility for ensuring students' well-being in schools and that parents feel confident that their child is safe in school. Failing to remove known predators from schools is not only unacceptable, it is against the law."

Matt Drange graduated from Rosemead High in 2007.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Special Victims Bureau is investigating sexual abuse at Rosemead High. The investigators can be reached through the Temple City station or by calling (562) 946-7960.

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