Abuse Victim Says Her School Was a Haven for Predators
MARTINEZ, Calif. (CN) - School officials in a wealthy California town spent years protecting sexually abusive middle school teachers, a woman claims in court.
Kristen Cunnane claims that two teachers at Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School sexually abused her in the 1990s. Cunnane says she was 11 when the harassment started.
In a complaint filed in Contra Costa County Superior Court, Cunnane says that science teacher Dan Witters was the first to molest her.
Witters - who committed suicide in 1996 after allegations of sexual misconduct first surfaced - was a known sexual predator, but the school district hired him anyway in 1990 and failed to protect children from him. Though the district is named in the complaint only as Doe 1, the allegations imply the Moraga School District.
Cunnane says that she was also sexually assaulted by her physical education teacher, Julie Correa, who is currently serving an eight-year sentence at Valley State Prison. Now 44, Correa had pleaded no contest to one felony count of sexual penetration under duress and three felony counts of sexually abusing a child aged 14 or 15 years old.
Cunnane says the Contra Costa Times newspaper uncovered letters and internal memos from 1994 to 1996 proving that school and district employees "had knowledge that sexual abuse and harassment was rife at the school, but failed to report it to authorities."
"One of the letters, dated June 12, 1994, was sent by a former school student to defendant Doe 2, the school principal at the time," according to the complaint. "In this letter, the former student described how Dan Witters, a science teacher at the school, had sexually molested her in June of 1990, including by kissing her on the mouth and placing his hand on the inside of her shirt. In the letter, the student stated that she was reporting the molestation so that 'no one else [would] be put in a similar situation' and that she 'wanted the administration to know, and to take some sort of action ... to prevent such an incident from occurring again.'" (Brackets and ellipses in original.)
The school principal, named in Cunnane's complaint as Doe 2, has been identified by the Contra Costa Times as retired principal Bill Walters. The Times identifies the other Doe defendants as retired assistant principal Paul Simonin and retired superintendant John Cooley.
"Rather than immediately reporting the incident to the authorities, including Child Protective Services and the Contra Costa County District Attorney's office, as [Walters] was required to do under the law, he did, essentially, nothing," the lawsuit states. "In a memo from [Walters] to [Cooley] dated November 24, 1996, [Walters] detailed his actions, or lack thereof, upon receipt of the June 12, 1994 letter. In that memo, [Walters] admits that he did nothing for two months because 'the instructional staff had been dismissed for the summer.' When he finally found time to address the sexual abuse of his former student by a teacher, in August of 1994, [Walters] actually gave a copy of the letter to Witters, the alleged molester, thus identifying the student by name. In the same memo, [Walters] reports that he asked Witters if the allegations were true, accepted Witters' denial and then counseled Witters that he could lose his job if the student pursued charges." (Emphasis in original.)
Walters also allegedly discussed the issue with Simonin, the assistant principal who also failed to report the abuse to authorities as required by California law. Both decided they should "not pursue the issue," Cunnane says.
"While defendants displayed concern about Witters' job security, they appear to have had no such concern regarding the truth of the allegations, or the safety of their current and former students who were, at that moment, in the presence of an alleged sexual predator," the complaint states. "The decision not to report the allegations to authorities was both inexcusable and grossly negligent, and as we now know, led to tragic consequences."
In a strange twist, Correa had personally witnessed Witters' inappropriate behavior, and sent memos to Walters about incidents in which Witters kissed a student on the cheek, licked a student's ear and patted a student's buttocks, according to the complaint. Walters allegedly failed to act on Correa's information.
Walters admitted to Cooley in a 1996 memo that "he could not remember if he even 'spoke to Dan [Witters]' about the allegations, and that he had 'no documentation regarding this incident other than the note from Julie [Correa],'" Cunnane says (emphasis in original).
In November 1996, seven more female students accused Witters of sexual abuse, including fondling, digital penetration and oral sex. On Nov. 25, 1996, the Moraga School District finally informed parents about the abuse and placed Witters on leave pending an investigation.
Dan Witters was found dead five days later at the base of a cliff off Highway 1 in Big Sur.
Cunnane says Witters sexually harassed and assaulted her when they were alone in his classroom in the 1995-96 school year. She claims she confided in Correa, who told her not to tell her parents because Correa would "protect" her.
"Correa used Ms. Cunnane's incident with Witters as an excuse to get even closer to Ms. Cunnane, and ultimately to begin her own abuse of Ms. Cunnane," the complaint states.
"Shortly after Ms. Cunnane was abused by Witters, Correa established a relationship with Ms. Cunnane outside of school," the complaint states. "In addition to the inordinate amount of time they spent alone together during the school day, Correa began calling Ms. Cunnane on the phone at night, occasionally at first and eventually progressing to every night. Gradually, the conversations turned explicitly sexual. Correa asked questions about Ms. Cunnane's body, including her breasts and pubic area. Among other things, Correa told Ms. Cunnane that she wanted to have a physical relationship when Ms. Cunnane turned 18, and revealed that she masturbated while on the phone with Ms. Cunnane."
Cunnane says Correa continued to touch her inappropriately throughout her eighth grade year and grew more aggressive - groping her during sports scrimmages, kissing and fondling her, and even spending the night with her and "cuddling" on a school trip to Washington, D.C
The abuse allegedly continued into Cunnane's high school years.
"Correa's sexual abuse of Ms. Cunnane escalated rapidly during the fall of 1996 and beyond," the complaint states. "Kissing and fondling progressed to digital penetration, oral copulation and vaginal to vaginal contact. Correa would perform sexual acts on Ms. Cunnane and then expect Ms. Cunnane to perform reciprocal acts. Correa often gave Ms. Cunnane alcohol in order to encourage reciprocation. These acts occurred at Correa's apartment in Lafayette, Calif., in Correa's car and at Ms. Cunnane's home in Moraga."
"At the same time, Correa increased her mental abuse of Ms. Cunnane and subjected her to increasing torture and control," Cunnane adds. "For instance, Correa purchased a cell phone for Ms. Cunnane and cut out pages of a dictionary in which Ms. Cunnane was to hide the phone. When that phone was discovered by Ms. Cunnane's mother, Correa purchased another phone and created a hiding place for it in an athletic shoe, which she gave to Ms. Cunnane. Correa expected Ms. Cunnane to call her nearly every night for the next three years. Correa also instructed Ms. Cunnane how to manipulate and mislead her parents in order to have Ms. Cunnane sneak out of her house to meet Correa, during which time Correa would sexually abuse Ms. Cunnane."
Cunnane says she experienced feelings of guilt following the suicide of science teacher Witters, feeling somehow responsible for his death. She claims that Correa used the event to dominate, brainwash and control her.
"In an effort to force Ms. Cunnane to maintain her silence about the abuse, Correa threatened that she would kill herself or kill Ms. Cunnane if anyone found out about Correa's actions - and that they would all end up dead, like Witters," the complaint states. "This threat terrified Ms. Cunnane and, exactly as Correa had intended, prevented Ms. Cunnane from revealing the abuse."
Cunnane says she finally told Correa off in 1999, her senior year of high school, but that Correa continued the psychological manipulation into Cunnane's freshman year at the University of California, Los Angeles, by threatening to hurt herself or Cunnane.
Free from Correa's grasp, Cunnane reportedly made the Olympic Trials semifinals in the 100 and 200 butterfly events in 2004. She reported the abuse to authorities in 2010, resulting in a 23-count indictment of Correa, according to the complaint.
The effects of Cunnane's abuse at Moraga will last a lifetime, she says, noting that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety, depression, dissociative identity disorder, amnesia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, suicidal inclinations and severe emotional distress.
"I'm proud of how I'm doing, considering all of this," Cunnane told the Contra Costa Times. "But I can't go 20 minutes without remembering what happened to me."
Cunnane is assistant head coach of the women's swim team at the University of California, Berkeley.
There is a one-year statute of limitations for failing to fulfill one's role as state-mandated reporters. As such, Moraga police Chief Robert Priebe None says that none of the school officials who failed to handle the sex-abuse claims can be charged with crimes.
Cunnane accuses the defendants of negligence, emotional distress, fraudulent concealment, conspiracy and other claims.
She is represented by Paul Llewellyn from the San Francisco firm Lewis & Llewellyn.