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'I thought it would go away' -- School districts are paying millions to former students who say leaders were negligent in protecting them from abuse

Kayla Jimenez, The Mercury News on

Published in News & Features

SAN JOSE, Calif. — After years of yearning to hold her former high school accountable for failing to protect her from sexual abuse by her coach, Allison Brown, a former star basketball player at Valley Christian High School in San Jose, got her chance when a new state law opened a three-year window that allows students to sue their schools for failing to protect them from abuse they suffered years ago.

Brown sued Valley Christian Schools, the group of private religious campuses that includes her old high school, for negligence and harassment last year, and has since settled the case. Valley Christian paid Brown an undisclosed amount, without admission of fault.

It wasn’t easy, she said, to take action against the school where her brother, friends and former teammates attended, and one she once felt a part of. But in the end, she concluded school officials were complicit in failing to protect her from abuse by her coach.

“When I first understood I was a victim, I was 30 years old,” Brown said. “I thought it was a relationship. I thought it would go away. And whether it was abuse by the same person or at the same school, there could be someone else hurting.”

Bay Area schools and their insurance companies are paying millions to student survivors of sexual abuse and harassment because of AB 218, authored by Lorena Gonzalez, which took effect Jan. 1, 2020. The legislation extended the statute of limitations to give people whose claims would have already expired three more years to sue schools and youth-serving organizations for ignoring, mishandling or covering up wrongs.

Former students who talked to Bay Area News Group said the settlements and jury decisions against their former schools don’t erase what happened to them but have allowed them to move forward. They allege the abuse was hidden in plain sight and that school and district staff who knew or suspected it should have reported the abuse to authorities as required by law and checked with other districts where the accused abusers worked.

 

“I’m no longer in survival mode. I’m at a peace with where things are at in my life,” Brown said. “I know justice has been served through the civil and criminal case. I feel like I’m getting to know myself again.”

Gonzalez said she doesn’t know how many survivors have taken action, but multiple law firms that represent victims estimate that hundreds of former students have filed suits against their school districts since the bill passed and expect more survivors to come forward before the window closes in December.

On May 10, a jury awarded a former Mt. Tamalpais High School student $10 million after he sued the Tamalpais Union High School District in Marin County, saying district employees failed to protect him from abuse and physical assault by a tennis coach in the early 2000’s. Earlier this year, New Haven Unified School District in Alameda County paid $3.3 million to two former students who sued the district over allegations that staff didn’t act upon learning the students’ former middle school teacher groomed them for sex in the late 1970’s

Other local cases are still pending. In January 2021, a former Los Gatos High School student who said she was abused by her track coach sued the Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District for sexual abuse and negligence, alleging the school put the reputation of its track team ahead of the safety of student athletes. In May 2021, another former Los Gatos track athlete filed a lawsuit against Los Gatos and Mitty High school over their handling of her alleged abuse by the same coach, Chioke “Chee” Robinson. Robinson is awaiting trial on charges of sexually assaulting numerous minors at schools across Santa Clara County. His lawyer, Victor Bullock, said Robinson “adamantly denies any wrongdoing.”

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