Lawsuit: Lafayette School District knew of teacher fondling students before 2010 arrest
Lafayette School District employees received complaints of a popular Stanley Middle School teacher fondling female students before the teacher's 2010 arrest for sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl, according to a civil suit filed in Contra Costa Superior Court.
The school district, Superintendent Fred Brill, Stanley Principal David Schrag and former teacher Michael Merrick are being sued by the girl who Merrick was found guilty of sexually abusing in his classroom over a four-month period. The lawsuit, filed in March, asks for money for past and future medical expenses, a punitive award and general damages.
Merrick, 49, pleaded guilty in January to six felonies to avoid a trial on 25 sex crime charges related to the girl. He gave a statement in court admitting to the abuse before he was sentenced to five years and eight months in state prison. Merrick is serving his sentence at the North Kern State Prison in Delano.
Rick Madsen, attorney for the victim and her parents, alleges in the civil complaint that Merrick had a known history of “inappropriate contact with female students.”
“In particular … Brill, Schrag and the district and its employees had received complaints about Merrick in the past and were informed and knew, or reasonably should have known, that Merrick had previously and repeatedly touched and fondled other female students at Stanley Middle School,” Madsen wrote. He alleged that employees failed to report the abuse as required by mandated reporting laws.
“We are not prepared to comment on the likelihood of other victims,” Madsen said in a phone interview. “The bottom line is, if the Lafayette School District had enforced their own rules, this would have never happened, and that's unconscionable.”
Brill, while declining to comment on the overall lawsuit, said in an email the district denies the allegation that employees were informed of previous Merrick fondling and failed to report to authorities. A call to the Lafayette police chief was not returned.
The district has released dozens of documents involving the internal handling of Merrick's arrest to this newspaper. However, the newspaper continues to fight for a Lafayette police report.
“The District is very much concerned that in providing the report to you, that portions of it would be revealed that could impact the minor victim (Jane Doe) and others, all of whom are still in the general area and many of whom are minors,” Brill wrote in a response to the Times' Public Records Act request. “Merely redacting their names would not remedy this concern, in our opinion.
“With respect to other documented complaints of ‘wrongdoing' or ‘inappropriate behavior with students' involving Merrick, to the district's knowledge none exist other than the one brought forth by the minor victim, Jane Doe.”
After years in the Stanley math department, Merrick was working as the wood shop teacher when he was arrested in October 2010.
Merrick had coerced the victim not to report the abuse, which occurred in his wood shop classroom during private math tutoring sessions paid for by the child's parents. Evidence collected by Lafayette police detectives included hundreds of sexually themed text messages Merrick sent to the victim's cellphone.
The lawsuit alleges that school administrators knowingly allowed — and even endorsed — Merrick and other teachers to tutor district students for pay, despite that such a practice is expressly forbidden by school district policy. Merrick, in particular, tutored students on campus for more than a decade without any monitoring.
News of Merrick's arrest back in 2010 generated significant community interest, and in a June 30, 2011, legal filing, Madsen said police officials had been asked by members of the community to identify the young victim.
“Claimant … suffered tremendous emotional distress and legitimately feared public retaliation, scorn and ridicule,” Madsen wrote.
After an online news story about a confidential police report compromised the girl's anonymity, a Contra Costa judge made a rare order to close the courtroom to the public should the victim ever take the witness stand.
“Plaintiff has suffered, and continues to suffer, great pain of mind and body, shock, emotional distress, embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, loss of close personal relationships, disgrace, humiliation and loss of enjoyment of life,” Madsen wrote.
The next hearing is scheduled for Nov. 2 in Contra Costa Superior Court.
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.