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Moraga school district settles '90s sex abuse claims for $14 million

Sexual Misconduct
Moraga school district agrees to $14-million payout to settle sex molestation claims made against dead teacher

Two women who claim they were sexually abused by a Moraga schoolteacher in the 1990s as teens will receive $14 million to settle a lawsuit accusing the school district east of Berkeley of concealing numerous complaints of molestation against the educator before their own abuse occurred, attorneys said.

The two women alleged they were molested more than 50 times each by science teacher Daniel Witters at Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School in mid-1990s. Their 2013 lawsuit alleges they were molested after school officials, including the principal, assistant principal and the superintendent at the time, buried prior allegations against Witters.

The settlement is among the largest ever reached by a public school district with alleged victims of sexual abuse.

“Moraga school officials went to unimaginable lengths to cover up Mr. Witters' horrific behavior and hide information that could have saved the victims,” said David Ring, a Los Angeles attorney for the two victims. “They stole the life of each woman and no amount of money will make it better.”

In a statement to the Contra Costa Times, which uncovered the false reporting in the 1990s, Moraga School District Supt. Bruce Burns apologized for the missteps of past administrators.

"The betrayal of that trust caused real and lasting suffering," he said. "It is our hope that this settlement will allow these women to continue to heal and help them and their families move forward. It also allows our district to continue the work we have begun to improve student safeguards and be worthy of the trust parents place in us."

Witters allegedly began abusing girls shortly after being hired in 1989 and continued to do so for another seven years. He committed suicide during a probe into his conduct that was launched after several girls made allegations to a new school administrator.

One of those victims who came forward was one of the women who sued the district last year. She was 14 at the time. Another of the victims was the second woman who sued.

After Witters drove off a cliff in 1996 in Monterey and his body was found in the wreckage, the investigation came to end and the story lay dormant for years. District officials in public statements said at the time they knew nothing of the allegations against Witters until the year he died and acted promptly when they learned, records show.

“The district nearly got away with it,” said attorney Ring, who specializes in child abuse cases.

But in 2011, charges against another district teacher in the 1990s prompted an investigative story by the Contra Costa Times that uncovered numerous reports of abuse and misconduct against Witters.

According to the lawsuit, in 1990 and 1991 a teacher reported complaints of Witters inappropriately touching a girl’s bra strap to the principal and found him having sex with a female in his classroom.

A student in 1994 reported in a letter to the principal at the time that Witters molested her while driving her home four years earlier. The letter was then shown to the superintendent but no action was taken, Ring said. They then confronted Witters with the letter and warned him he could lose his job and be sued if it happened again, records show.

That same summer, Ring said, Witters began abusing another person and forcing her into sex acts.

The school principal reported the allegation by the girl in the car to a school psychologist, who despite also being a mandated reporter did not inform police, according to records. In May 1995, students gave an anonymous letter to the school newspaper editor alleging sexual harassment by Witters, but it ended up in the principal’s hands. The superintendent sent Witters a letter warning to end all activity that could be viewed as sexual harassment, records show.

The lawsuit alleges that in 1995 and 1996, Witters groomed the second woman as a 13-year-old and by the spring of 1996 was forcing her into sex acts in a supply cupboard.

Eventually, in November 1996, a student reported to a new assistant principal seeing the teacher kissing another student. After the superintendent reported the kissing to child protective services, Witters admitted to the act, but played it down.

Ring said several other girls came forward, including one of the victims he represents. With police investigating in 1996, Witters disappeared after telling his wife he was driving up north. In early December, after his body was found in the wreckage, police closed the investigation.

For news on Southern California crimes and court cases, follow @LAcrimes.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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