Elk Grove, Sac City districts failed to train staff on sex-abuse ‘red flags,’ lawsuits say

After two recent high-profile child molestation arrests and convictions, lawsuits filed Wednesday against the Sacramento City Unified and Elk Grove Unified school districts accuse them of failing to train their employees to recognize signs of child abuse.

The lawsuits stem from cases involving after-school program leader Joshua Rolando Vasquez in Sacramento City Unified and volunteer reading aide Eric Ernest Echols in Elk Grove Unified.

Along with the two convicted child molesters and the districts, the two lawsuits name the city of Sacramento, and also accuse a local principal of negligent supervision of her employee.

Attorneys accuse the districts of failing to train their employees on how to recognize signs of child abuse, failing to train employees on the “numerous ways child abusers establish trust relationships with children and adults” before exploiting the child, and failing to inform their employees of the “facts, circumstances and frequency” of the districts’ history of employees committing acts of child abuse against students.

“These cases demonstrate there is a fundamental breakdown at the district levels, and the districts are mindful of the potential problem of employees sexually abusing children, and adopt the attitude that if we fingerprint them and they don’t come back as sex offenders, they are fine,” said Roger A. Dreyer, the victims’ attorney who filed the lawsuits in Sacramento Superior Court.

The lawsuits come months after both districts paid settlements to several victims and their families. The suits allege that the districts and their employees knew or had reason to know that the two men later convicted put students in danger.

Attorney: Why hasn’t it stopped?

Dreyer said the two school districts have done nothing to investigate why these crimes continue to happen.

Earlier this month, Sacramento jurors convicted former Cosumnes Oaks High School geography teacher and coach Monte Reed of nine counts of sex acts with a 15-year-old student and molesting two other teenage girls in 2016 and 2017. Reed faces more than nine years in state prison when he returns for sentencing Sept. 20.

The sex acts happened in Reed’s classroom in the Elk Grove Unified School District after school and while school was in session during his prep period, conduct that began at the end of his first victim’s freshman year in 2016.

Following Reed’s criminal trial, Dreyer sounded a common theme. “This verdict, while certainly appropriate and important, it ignores the bigger issue: Why does it happen?” he said. “It underscores the failure of the district to prevent it from happening – to see it, prevent it and discourage Reed’s conduct.”

Victims who testified in Reed’s just-concluded criminal case, and represented by Dreyer, are now suing in Sacramento Superior Court. Trial is set for early 2020.

Reed’s case was just one of a number of criminal arrests, convictions and sentencings of Elk Grove Unified employees or volunteers since 2015 connected to inappropriate conduct or sexual acts against children in the area’s largest school district. That included a stretch between 2016 and 2017 during which seven employees were arrested. Other Elk Grove Unified cases continue to make their way through Sacramento Superior Court.

The district’s response to each of the incidents has sought to assure parents and the community that the offending employees were fingerprinted and had passed a Department of Justice background check before they were hired, while insisting district officials are doing more to keep its 63,000 students safe from sexual predators and misconduct.

But Dreyer and attorneys Joseph George and Joseph George Jr., the team who brought the lawsuits Wednesday, say the words are hollow without definitive action – and answers.

Joseph George Jr. accused district leaders and staff of “willful ignorance” in ignoring time and again warning signs and failing to take decisive action following incidents of abuse.

Action after abuse incidents, George said, “is zero. At the most, it’s coffee talk in the teachers’ lounge.”

“They don’t self-examine,” Dreyer told The Sacramento Bee in an interview. “These are teachable moments, and they need to figure out why it happens. Their excuse is, ‘We don’t want to interfere with police.’”

Two cases related to lawsuit

The lawsuits filed Wednesday involved Vasquez in the Sacramento City Unified district, who pleaded guilty in September 2016 to six counts of committing lewd acts upon a child, and Echols in Elk Grove Unified, who sexually abused six students as young as 7 at Prairie Elementary School between July 2015 and June 2016.

Vasquez was sentenced in October 2016 to 150 years to life in prison for molestation. Echols pleaded no contest and was sentenced in December 2017 to 11 years in state prison and received a sentencing “strike” for his crimes.

In the Vasquez case, the city of Sacramento and Sacramento City Unified School District agreed to pay a $12.5 million settlement in March to a girl who was repeatedly molested during an after-school program at Mark Twain Elementary. Vasquez repeatedly blindfolded the girl, who was 7 at the time and is now 12, and made her play “games” such as a “whipped cream” game and a “cleaning a toy in a box” game, according to the lawsuit filed in December 2016 in Sacramento Superior Court by the victim’s family.

Hours after Sacramento City Unified and the city agreed to pay the settlement, jurors awarded $1.135 million to the families of three Elk Grove Unified students who were molested by Echols.

But the families said the districts and the schools had not properly supervised the two men, and missed numerous red flags that pointed to illegal contact with young students.

The lawsuit against Sacramento City Unified filed Wednesday states that Mark Twain Elementary School Principal Rosario Guillen-Jovel knew that Vasquez had not followed her directions to stop using candy as a reward system, and Guillen-Jovel knew Vasquez was telling students they could get the candy in his “secret office.” The suit alleges Guillen-Jovel discarded a written complaint from one of the victims’ parents who was concerned that Vasquez was instructing her daughter to keep the secret.

“This goes back to grooming,” Dreyer said. “How do we know what a person is going to do? Actually you do know when this is going to happen.”

According to the lawsuit, red flags were also raised before Elk Grove Unified’s Echols was arrested. He frequently placed students on his lap and was alone with them often, the suit said.

“Such repeated and frequent misconduct is an obvious ‘red flag’ of child abuse in a public elementary school environment,” the lawsuit said. “[The district] was obligated to respond to the known red flag misconduct, failed to respond, and the red flag misconduct continued and escalated.”

Five students approached Maria Stepter, a district employee and mandated reporter, on the playground and told her their para-educator had inappropriately touched them on separate occasions, the lawsuit said. A mandated reporter is required to make a written report of a disclosed sexual abuse act on a child within 36 hours. Stepter allegedly waited more than 40 calendar days to report that Echols was touching students both outside and inside their underwear. She is named in the lawsuit, but is not a defendant.

Training added, districts say

Sacramento City Unified said in an email statement to The Bee that it is committed “to doing everything in our power to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again in our schools.”

Attorneys called the $12.5 million Sacramento City Unified settlement historic, and it included changes to how employees would be trained to interact with children at Sacramento city schools.

“One step we have already started taking is providing trainings on child sexual abuse prevention for all program managers and requiring them to fingerprint directly with the District, even if they are outside service providers,” read a statement from Sacramento City Unified spokesman Alex Barrios.

The Sacramento City Unified settlement agreement will require after-school program employees to undergo a three-hour-minimum training, multiple times annually. Among other changes, volunteers will not be allowed to be left alone with a child, and staffers will not be allowed to meet alone with students behind a closed and locked door.

The lawsuit says that while Elk Grove Unified provides its employees with Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting training, it is “incomplete and ineffective.” The district said in an emailed statement to The Bee that it recently implemented a new online anonymous reporting system as another tool to report harassment, harm or bullying, and re-evaluated its hiring practices, training and reporting.

“We have added training to better identify grooming behavior in schools as part of our annual mandated reporter training which is required of all employees yearly and all managers must annually complete sexual harassment training,” said Elk Grove Unified spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton.

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.
Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.