It’s not often that a terrible story has somewhat of a good ending, but it does happen. In this case, at least part of it has that ending, but the full story isn’t over.
It all deals with the sexual abuse of children by teachers in our schools.
I don’t know about your town, but in the San Francisco area, scarcely a day goes by that the daily paper reports another instance of the sexual abuse of students in a public school – by a classroom teacher, a special education teacher or aide, or a coach or club leader of some sort.
Just last Wednesday, two reports, a teacher and a coach, one involving 39 counts, including rape and kidnapping!
On my KSFO radio program, I sometimes snarkily joke that this epidemic must be caused by something in the water.
It’s hard not to joke. If I didn’t, I’d scream.
I’ve written extensively about several cases in Contra Costa County, the most sensational of which concerns a young woman named Kristen Cunnane.
The details of the horrors she experienced were first reported in the Contra Costa Times more than a year ago after Kristen reported to police details of her abuse. Ultimately, the abusing teacher was convicted and is in prison.
Kristen is now a grown woman, married and serving as the assistant U.C. Berkeley swim coach.
But when her horror began, she was a student at the Joaquin Moraga Middle School in the small town of Moraga, Calif., during the mid ’90s.
She wasn’t alone in being abused, but she’s the only one identified because she had the courage to seek justice by reporting the crime to police.
There are three other women who are identified as “Jane Does,” and I’ve been told there are at least three others who were victims but who have not come forward.
So, in just this instance, in one small school, at the same time, we are talking about seven middle-school girls abused by a teacher named Dan Witters.
Another teacher, Julie Correa who is in prison, also abused Kristen.
As the investigation of Kristen’s case proceeded, it was revealed that at the time of the abuse by Witters, there were warnings to school officials by students, teachers and parents – but nothing was done.
There were no reports to police, as was required, and Witters continued teaching and having access to the girls.
But rumors began to spread in town, and then Witters committed suicide by driving his vehicle off a cliff.
That put an end to police involvement, and there was no investigation of why school district officials, who knew of the abuse, had done nothing despite their legal and moral obligation to do so.
When the CC Times published its investigative report of Kristen’s experience and the conviction of her abuser, it became clear the school district knew of the abuse but ignored it.
It also was revealed the district provided counseling for some of the victims at taxpayer expense, but this was never made public.
Kristen Cunnane shocked the school by filing suit against the district and three administrators.
The allegations from the district flew. It wanted the case thrown out.
Initially, it claimed that what happened to Kristen was her fault – that tack was quickly dropped because of negative publicity. Then it claimed a statute of limitations – that it was too late to sue.
That didn’t hold up because her attorney claimed it wasn’t until the newspaper reported the failure of the district to do its legal duty that Kristen was aware of those facts.
I was delighted at Kristen’s tenacity and the skills of her attorney. The self-righteous attitude of the superintendent and the school board was disgusting; I attended every board meeting after the story was published – and their only concern seemed to be that the result not hurt the current budget.
The reaction of the community was shocking. I saw only one letter to the editor in the newspaper, and most of the people I spoke to knew nothing about the case. The few who did were more concerned that if Kristen won a financial settlement it might hurt the current budget.
They only worried about money. There was no concern for the extraordinary mental and emotional damage done to those seven little girls and how those experiences affected their lives.
There was no concern that the negligent school officials were still either in the district or in the area and not held responsible.
As a cover, the district quickly organized a training and reporting system for abuse – as though they hadn’t been responsible all along.
Shockingly, a former teacher at the time read about the case and came forward to say she had reported the abuse to officials but nothing was done. She was harassed and then forced out of the system.
Kristen was honest with me about the years of turmoil she experienced before being able to tell her story. She told me how one of the abused girls was mocked by students, and even parents, because she had reported Dan Witters but was assumed to be lying because he was a “popular teacher.”
I began this by saying there can be a good ending to a terrible story and the good is that Kristen’s suit was settled. She’s been awarded $2.85 million – before her lawyer and uncle get their share, but still nice!
The school board is so relieved that the insurance company will pay it, not the current budget.
But it isn’t all over. Remember those three Jane Does? They’ve also sued, and their cases are pending.
Plus there are still three other girls who haven’t come forward. I hope they do. They deserve justice, too.
The real injustice is that those three administrators who hid what happened walked away, scot-free.