A Shot at Justice: Lawsuits Mount Over Sexual Abuse in California … – KQED

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When Daniela attended Bell High School in Southeast Los Angeles County in the mid ‘90s, she was a student in Jeffrey Scott Jones’ Advanced Placement English class. As a teenager, she trusted him, and did not yet know the control he would have over her life for years into adulthood.
Daniela, now 43, is one of three former students who married Jones, and one of five victims who say he sexually abused them when they were minors. She is now suing him (PDF) and the Los Angeles Unified School District over claims that school leaders never investigated or notified police after multiple reports of misconduct. Daniela, who asked that we not use her legal name, spoke to KQED on the condition of anonymity because of fears about her safety.
“We were seen as poor kids, like we didn’t matter,” she said of her classmates, many of whom she said grew up in poverty. “But we do matter, and somebody should care.”

Daniela and countless others who say they were sexually abused as children are now able to file their claims in court because of a California state law that went into effect in 2020. Assembly Bill 218, or the California Child Victims Act, temporarily gives victims the chance to bring claims that would otherwise be barred because of the statute of limitations.
The measure provides a three-year window in which victims of childhood sexual abuse can file complaints against perpetrators or their employers, regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred. That three-year window closes on Dec. 31.
Attorneys who handle abuse claims are urging victims in older cases to come forward before that date. If they wait, it could become harder — or, in some instances, impossible — to hold individuals or their employers accountable through the civil court system.
Advocates for survivors say the extended statute of limitations offers an opportunity to force schools to reckon with historic wrongs through financial pressure. They also say it reflects the reality that many victims do not report childhood abuse (PDF) until years or decades later, if at all.
Experts say victims may fear retaliation, or may not initially recognize what they experienced as abuse.
Daniela says that when she was in high school, everyone adored Jones — including her. She and other students would go to his classroom just to talk. She says she told him everything, and even confided in him that she had been sexually abused by a family member.
According to the lawsuit, Jones targeted young girls who were vulnerable for abuse. He instructed students to take personality tests and send him journal entries, and read students’ palms as a way to see their reaction to physical touch.
Daniela says she moved in with Jones when she was 17 years old, and the abuse began days later. She says she was in denial for years afterward.
“If you really thought it was so bad, you would’ve screamed and yelled and told everybody. No,” she said, remembering her own thought process. “Sometimes we process things by accepting them and accepting them and accepting them.”
According to the lawsuit, Daniela told a teacher about her relationship with Jones. The suit also alleges the sibling of another victim reported Jones to the principal after he married her sister. But school staff did not investigate the allegations or report him to the police, the lawsuit alleges. Instead, according to the suit, Jones worked in the district for decades, moving from school to school.
Jones was convicted of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old in 2016.
A Los Angeles Unified spokesperson declined to comment on the litigation, but said that the safety and well-being of students and employees remains the district’s top priority.
That suit is one of dozens, if not hundreds, of lawsuits filed against school districts across the state over the last three years because of the law that temporarily set aside the statute of limitations.
According to an analysis from the firms Greenberg Gross LLP and Jeff Anderson and Associates, nearly 70 lawsuits have been filed against the Los Angeles Unified School District alone.

That number is likely an undercount of claims filed against the district, according to Mike Reck, attorney with Jeff Anderson and Associates.
“It really is a testament to how deep this problem is,” Reck said.
The lawsuits highlight instances where children did try to tell adults in schools they were abused by school employees, but officials failed to protect students or notify law enforcement or other agencies.
“The clergy cases get all the attention, but I’m telling you, the school cases that we see are only the tip of the iceberg,” said Sean Tillis, an attorney with the Oakland-based Tillis Law Firm who handles sexual abuse cases.
He said that, in some cases, the publicity on the extended statute has motivated people to consider legal options — even if they never have before.
“They’re in denial, so they’re not going to know what a sex abuse statute is. They never think ‘litigation.’ They’re trying not to even think ‘abuse,'” he said.
Brian Williams, attorney with Greenberg Gross LLP, says that as the Dec. 31 deadline looms for older cases, victims continue to call his office daily to see if they have legal options.
“The calls haven’t stopped,” he said.
Most civil cases against school districts will end in settlements, forcing schools to pay millions of dollars to victims for abuse by school employees. Some already have.
Lauren Cerri, attorney with San José-based Corsiglia, McMahon and Allard, represented five men who recently reached a $7.5 million settlement with the Union School District over abuse by a teacher 40 years ago.
Cerri also represented a former student who reached a nearly $3.5 million settlement with the Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District in October. When a victim in that case first approached her office about the school’s response to alleged abuse by former track coach Chioke Robinson in the 1990s, it was too late. Then AB 218 extended the statute of limitations, allowing the case to move forward.
“If [people] come forward now, justice will more likely prevail,” Cerri said.
She said if people wait until after Dec. 31, when the three-year window is set to close, “their chances are sadly and arbitrarily a lot less.”
The California Child Victims Act also created permanent changes that allow people under the age of 40 the opportunity to sue. Before that, victims had until the age of 26 to file civil cases for childhood sexual abuse.
That change gives many more victims a shot at justice.
Three former students at Miramonte High School in Orinda filed a lawsuit this month against the school and the Acalanes Union High School District. The students, who attended the school from 2007 to 2009, allege that school staff ignored red flags of grooming behavior and failed to investigate after students reported allegations of abuse.
According to the complaint, Mark Christopher Litton taught English at Miramonte and targeted vulnerable girls who were passionate about writing, reading and poetry. He was sentenced in 2010 to two years in prison after pleading no contest to sexual abuse.

In a statement, Acalanes Union High School District superintendent John Nickerson said the district is “extremely concerned to read the allegations related to how the District/school responded, or failed to respond.”
One of the victims, identified as Jane Doe 2 in court documents, asked not to be identified to protect her privacy, including from the teacher she says groomed and assaulted her while she was in high school.
In an interview with KQED, she described how students at Miramonte High School were expected to be perfect and excel.
“Nothing bad could ever happen. And if it did, there were plenty of ways to cover things up,” she said.
She said Litton was well-loved on campus, and initially a mentor for her. But by senior year, the teacher’s behavior became more alarming. She said Litton described dreaming about her at night and left notes on her car. She said her classmates worried about her safety.
When she reported his behavior as well as concerns that he had sexually assaulted another classmate, she said school staff told her not to worry and that the school would look into it. When she graduated, she felt like she had won by making it through high school. Then in 2009, she learned that the teacher had been arrested for sexually abusing another student.
“It felt like I had lost. I had failed. I had not protected anybody else except for myself, and that was a terrible feeling. I remember dropping to my knees and throwing up,” she said.
Now 31, she’s roughly the age her teacher was when he allegedly groomed and assaulted her on campus. She is still working through the long-term impact of the abuse, and says pursuing this case has been terrifying and empowering at the same time.
This lawsuit, she says, has finally given her a chance to gain some control over her experience and get answers from the school.
“As an adult, there are so many things that I was able to look back on and see differently than as a child,” she said. “It was a last stand to acknowledge what had happened, and to potentially right a wrong and get closure.”

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