Feb 24, 2021
In the past month, numerous cases of sexual abuse have been reported in various schools around Southern California. On February 1, Brett Mohr, a teacher at Glendale Adventist Academy since 1998, was arrested and charged with multiple felony accounts related to inappropriate conduct with students. It’s not the first time Glendale Adventist Academy has been in the news for sexual abuse claims.
In 2013, Valerie Jane Gonzales, a private vocal instructor at Glendale Adventist Academy, was sentenced to a year in county jail for allegedly engaging in lewd acts with a male high school student. The age of the student involved was not released, but Gonzales was initially charged with four counts of felony lewd act on a child and four felony counts of oral copulation of a person under 16. Gonzales, of El Monte, California, was 29 at the time, and the relationship with the underage student reportedly lasted from June to November 2012.
In 2018, another Glendale teacher from Salem Lutheran School was arrested for committing a sex crime with an underage student. Jacqueline Nicole Muller, 26 at the time, was arrested in August 2018 for having unprotected sex on multiple occasions with a 14-year-old student during a field trip to Washington D.C. Muller had reportedly been teaching at the school for approximately one year before the arrest. Muller, a chaperone on the field trip, was charged with first-degree child sexual abuse.
Additionally, earlier this month an assistant principal at Oak Hills High School in San Bernardino County was arrested and charged with continuous sexual abuse of a young girl, including lewd and lascivious acts with a child under 14 (the victim was reportedly 7 and 8 years old at the time of the alleged abuse).
Another story of school sex abuse that made headlines last week involved a former student of an elite La Jolla private school who came forward to announce a civil lawsuit claiming she had been repeatedly sexually abused by a former teacher. Allegations of sexual abuse within The Bishop’s School in La Jolla first came to light in 2018, when it was discovered that more than a dozen alleged incidents of sexual misconduct had been made over the course of 30 years. A 2019 lawsuit by a former student alleged two years of abuse by a teacher while he attended the school in the 1990s. That lawsuit alleges that the plaintiff, identified only as John H. Doe, was repeatedly sexually molested and harassed by a female computer science teacher beginning when he was a 16-year-old student (the female teacher was reportedly 32 years old at the time).
In 2019, the La Jolla Light reported that The Bishop’s School conducted a 2017 investigation into sexual misconduct after an alumna disclosed her “experience of sexual assault committed many decades ago by a former, now deceased, member of the school staff.” The alumna told the publication she engaged in “what was then viewed as a sexual relationship with a teacher in the 1980s.”
“When I attended Bishop’s, there were multiple students who had relations with faculty. I was not alone,” the former student indicated to the news outlet via e-mail.
In 2018, The Bishop’s School issued a letter disclosing that seven alumni had come forward and described 15 separate incidents following a year-long investigation – five of which were first-hand accounts of sexual misconduct or a “boundary violation” committed by a school employee beginning in the 1970s and continuing through the 1990s.
As of May 2019, an attorney representing The Bishop’s School confirmed 14 alumni had come forward to report incidents of sexual misconduct. The reports dated as far back as 1972, with the most recent allegation of misconduct occurring in 1998.
The latest lawsuit filed last week against The Bishop’s School seeks damages for intentionally inflicting emotional distress, sexual harassment, sexual battery, negligence, negligent supervision, and negligent failure to warn, train, or educate. School officials say they are reviewing the lawsuit but are not commenting at this time given the pending litigation.
Sadly, there are countless additional incidents of sexual abuse that have impacted various schools throughout Southern California in recent years. But this is not merely a local problem. A rash of sexual misconduct incidents are plaguing schools nationwide.
A recent study issued by the Education Department confirmed that reports of sexual violence in schools rose more than 50% between the 2015-2016 school year and the 2017-2018 school year. With school sexual abuse impacting more and more children of all ages and genders, parents are overwhelmed with concern and rightfully demanding answers. Since publishing recent blogs on the Glendale Adventist Academy and Oak Hills High School cases, many concerned parents have reached out to Dordulian Law Group for advice on how to help keep their children safe at school.
Accordingly, we sat down with two members of our SAJE Team (Sexual Abuse Justice Experts) – DLG’s Founder and President, Samuel Dordulian, a former sex crimes prosecutor as Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles County, and Moses Castillo, our Chief Investigator and a retired LAPD detective in the elite Sexually Exploited Child Unit. The two SAJE Team members participated in a question and answer session tackling the topics of combatting school sexual abuse and keeping children safe from predators. Both Dordulian and Castillo have handled hundreds of sex crime cases throughout their careers, many of which involved school sexual abuse.
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“Firstly, it’s important for parents to realize that the majority of sexual predators aren’t strangers, but someone close to the child and the child’s family. Whether it’s a coach, teacher, clergy member, family friend, or even a close relative, most childhood sexual abuse is committed by a familiar face,” says Detective Castillo.
“If an adult makes regular efforts to spend more time (typically alone) with your child than you do as their parent, that’s a red flag,” Castillo added. “Premeditated attempts to get a child alone – whether to go out for ice cream, take a trip to an amusement park, the movies, etc. – are situations that can be conducive to sexual abuse.”
“It’s also important to remember that sexual predators are notorious for seeking out positions (whether as a professional or volunteer) that allow them access to children. Granted, 95% of coaches, teachers, clergy, volunteers at religious institutions, etc. are likely upstanding citizens. But parents need to be aware that there’s no standard model for a sexual predator. A predator can be any of age, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.,” says attorney Samuel Dordulian.
“One major problem I consistently encounter with parents is their tendency to automatically view these individuals as sort of noble citizens. They don’t appreciate the potential predator instinct any random coach, teacher, clergy member, or even close friend or relative could have. I often tell parents about a case I was involved in as a Deputy District Attorney, where a teacher openly admitted that he chose the profession in order to have unlimited access to children. So, it’s important for parents to be aware that any professional who has direct private access to their children could potentially be a predator. Without encouraging paranoia, you do, in a sense, almost have to be on constant alert, because it can impact any child of any age/gender at any time. It’s not by accident that these people became teachers or coaches or clergy, it’s by design,” says Dordulian.
“Not only do predators groom children to earn trust, they also groom parents/guardians – oftentimes they will target kids who come from broken homes, without established support networks, and do their best to fill that void in the child’s life,” says Detective Castillo. “They’ll shower the child with gifts, praise, etc. And it’s a methodical process that can span weeks, months, or even years. Once there’s a mutual comfort level established, and a sense of trust, that’s when the predator will likely make a move. And it won’t necessarily be a sexual act initially. Predators often test the waters slowly – it might be a massage or a hug at first, and then progress into viewing pornographic images or videos. Once that behavior becomes normalized, the predator will move on to more aggressive acts,” says Castillo.
In terms of predators grooming parents, Dordulian and Castillo stress that offering gifts (money or material goods) is a typical tactic, as well as inordinate praise towards the child when parents are present. “What a great boy/girl you have,” or “your child is so special” leading to requests to spend time alone can be viewed as red flags. Both Dordulian and Castillo emphasize that sexual predators can be extremely methodical, patient, and clever. The grooming process of the parents and child can take place over the course of months and even years until all parties involved reach a level of comfort where the predator is able to operate unfettered and without suspicion.
“Parents need to be cognizant of how impactful their words can be, especially on a child. I remember watching a documentary on the Catholic Church abuse scandal, and a survivor, a young woman, was interviewed with her parents. She had been abused by a priest, but was afraid to disclose the incident to them because her father had once made a comment insinuating, ‘if anyone ever harms you in any way, I’ll kill them.’ Of course, he didn’t mean that literally, but she was just a kid when he made the statement. So when she was being abused, she didn’t tell her father because she believed he would kill the perpetrator, and was terrified he would then go to prison. Hence, she kept it a secret. And during the interview, the father was so broken about the situation, it was really devastating to watch. Kids often take what their parents say literally, and parents need to be cognizant of that,” says Dordulian.
“When you have a child that comes to you and reports an incident of sexual abuse, it’s critical that you express your absolute belief and support in what they’re telling you. You have to convince the child that you are on their side, you believe what they’re saying, and you’re willing to do everything in your power to help. That’s so important. From there, let the authorities investigate the situation,” says Castillo.
“In more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, I can probably count on one hand the number of parents who have done the right thing initially. Part of that has to do with the way the predators have wormed into the fabric of the family through the grooming process. We always stress ‘stranger danger,’ and how strangers could pose a threat and kids need to be vigilant. But that actually represents only a small fraction of the sexual abuse cases that occur. It’s the people the kids know, people in the home/family, people who ostensibly love the child that are typically the ones committing the abuse,” says Castillo.
“But it needs to be stressed that this is typically not a straightforward moral decision for parents, and predators use that to their advantage. As an example, imagine having to turn in an abusive uncle who is a close family member. When initially faced with that information, it’s typically inconceivable for a parent to believe that someone they love could be capable of such horrific acts. When a child is reporting an uncle who’s known and loved, that’s someone who a parent would likely never imagine doing such a thing. So it’s understandable that a parent’s first reaction might not be to believe the child 100%. More often than not, the first reaction is, How can that be? You must have misunderstood the touch, right? It’s not that the parents don’t believe their child as much as the universal instinct to not want to believe that such a terrible thing could ever happen to their family. For most parents, it’s unfathomable that sexual abuse could affect their child,” says Dordulian.
But, as Dordulian points out, sexual predators go to great lengths to ensure that type of reaction from parents. “Again, that’s by design. Predators will do everything in their power to make parents believe that they are honorable people, whether showering them with gifts, money, attention, etc. That’s why it’s so important for parents to maintain perspective if a child comes to them and reports an act of sexual abuse. Regardless of who the suspected abuser is, regardless of how close he or she may be to your family, a parent’s first instinct must be to trust the child and then allow authorities to conduct a thorough investigation,” says Dordulian.
Dordulian also notes that, although an understandably common concern among parents, worrying about damaging the reputation of a suspected predator who also happens to be a close family friend or relative should never take precedent over believing a child who discloses an instance of sexual abuse. “When you hear a sexual abuse allegation against someone you trust, respect, and believe is noble, the first reaction is understandably disbelief. But it’s imperative that we help parents understand that just because an accusation was made, it doesn’t mean someone’s life will be ruined. Rather, it means you absolutely must take every available step to uncover the truth. If the accused individual has nothing to hide and never did anything wrong, they should be open to assisting in an investigation in any way possible,” Dordulian says.
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“I believe there are age appropriate conversations that need to be had, depending on the age of the child. Teach children about body parts being sensitive to them, good touching versus bad touching, etc. But as children get older, it’s important for both parents and kids to educate themselves with resources that help identify how predators operate,” says Castillo.
One of the tactics used by predators that both Dordulian and Castillo recommend parents educate their children on is the attempt to normalize sexual abuse. Predators will often use the pretext of “expressing love” when abusing a child. A common practice among clergy is to frame an act of sexual abuse as an expression of “God’s love.” “This is extremely confusing for the child,” says Castillo. “I’ve encountered too many cases where an abused child recounts how they were scared, they knew something was wrong, but the predator convinced him or her that it was normal, that it was ‘love,'” Castillo says.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) have compiled a list of tips for parents to reference when talking to children about sexual abuse. The non-profit organization recommends starting conversations with children when they are young. Some of their recommendations include:
When sexual abuse occurs, it’s entirely understandable for parents to want to shield their child from any further harm. Samuel Dordulian has experienced this scenario firsthand as a sex crimes prosecutor, attempting to counsel families and encourage them to pursue legal action.
“I had a situation with a family where a close relative was seen abusing a young girl. I tried to counsel them to press charges, and although they believed their child, they ultimately chose not to take legal action because the predator was a relative. They cut all ties with the abusive relative, but felt that they were actually protecting the child by shielding them from additional attention that would follow if the matter became public and went to court,” Dordulian said. “That’s, unfortunately, a very common occurrence in my experience.”
For parents or survivors who are concerned about going to trial, Dordulian emphasizes that the vast majority of cases, roughly 90%, will settle out of court and never reach a courtroom. Moreover, Dordulian notes that the civil lawsuit process can take years, and survivors who may have been in their pre-teen years at the time the crime occurred will likely be teenagers when a case is eventually settled, and therefore more mature and able to handle the potential stress that can accompany legal proceedings. More than anything, however, Dordulian wishes more parents and children understood how the process of facing an abuser in court can often be extremely empowering.
“What I’ve found over the years, assisting hundreds of survivors, is that those who have gone through the legal process typically find it very empowering. They were once terrified of this scary predator, but eventually come to realize he’s actually not that intimidating when sitting quietly and meek in a courtroom with deputies standing over him, and is eventually carted away in handcuffs. For the first time, it’s the survivors who are now in control, not the perpetrator. And when a survivor takes back that control from the abuser, it can be incredibly healing. I’ve represented victims on countless occasions who are terrified before taking the stand. However, when they decide to take that step, to walk up, get on the stand and testify before that now meek and incarcerated perpetrator, inevitably they come to magically realize that this awful person who had hurt them so severely no longer has any power,” says Dordulian.
When dealing with sexual predators, Detective Moses uses the fruit of the forbidden tree analogy. “Once a predator gets that first taste, there’s no going back. And what’s more concerning is a predator’s tendency to become more aggressive over time. The crimes and compulsions almost always escalate. Child molesters excel to more violent crimes,” he says.
In 2005 the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a study examining recidivism rates of sex offenders who had recently been released from state prisons. Over a nine-year follow-up after a sex offender’s release, the study determined:
“These predators have a compulsion. If they abused one child, they will do it to another. That’s why taking legal action and reporting the crime is so critical. If a predator abused your child, they will soon be abusing another child, and on and on to other children until someone finally steps up and makes a legal case,” says Dordulian. “Sadly, because of the recidivism rates with sex offenders, not taking legal action is essentially guaranteeing that another child will fall prey to the same predator who harmed your child. It’s understandable that parents will have reservations about taking legal action, but ultimately you have to realize that if you don’t take action, you’re almost giving that perpetrator license to strike again,” Dordulian added.
“It’s so critical to report an abuser – it’s not going to stop with your child. It will happen again with almost complete certainty,” says Castillo.
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“It doesn’t matter when the crime occurred, report it to authorities immediately,” says Castillo. “With AB 218, the statute of limitations on childhood sex crimes is temporarily lifted until the end of 2022.”
Last month, three victims of a former middle school teacher (currently serving a 74-year prison term for sexual abuse) filed a lawsuit against him and the Redlands Unified School District under AB 218’s extension of the statute of limitations. Redlands Daily Facts reported that the victims, all former Clement Middle School students ranging in age from 11 to 14 when they were sexually abused over 20 years ago by former English teacher Sean Ramiro Lopez, allege the school district was aware of his conduct. The suit also alleges the school launched an investigation at one point, but ultimately failed to remove Lopez from the classroom or report suspicions to police.
The lawsuit, filed in San Bernardino Superior Court, alleges the abuse occurred from 1999 to 2001 and resulted in longstanding emotional trauma for the victims, including depression, anger, sleeplessness, and severe control and trust issues. This case is an excellent example of the unprecedented opportunity that AB 218 affords to all survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Until January 1, 2023, any survivor of childhood sexual abuse that occurred in California is now eligible to file a civil lawsuit seeking financial damages. Additionally, if a cover-up occurred (whether by an individual or an institution), as might have been the case with the Clement Middle School students, AB 218 allows the courts to award survivors treble (triple) damages. In other words, if a cover-up can be proven, a $10 million damages award would ultimately amount to $30 million under AB 218’s treble damages clause. Dordulian Law Group pursues treble damages in all applicable childhood sexual abuse cases.
While AB 218 is an opportunity for thousands of survivors to finally obtain justice and a financial damage award, the three-year “lookback window” aspect of the legislation is only available for a limited time. On January 1, 2023, the standard 10-year statute of limitations for sex crimes resumes, and many survivors who do not file a claim before the deadline will be left without legal recourse.
For additional information on AB 218 and the bill’s lookback window, please take a moment to view our blog.
Dordulian Law Group takes a unique approach to representing survivors of sexual abuse. Our elite Sex Crimes Division features a four-tiered support network available to all clients. Known as the SAJE Team (Sexual Abuse Justice Experts), DLG provides survivors with all-encompassing support with 24/7 access to former Deputy District Attorney Samuel Dordulian, retired LAPD Detective Moses Castillo, a licensed clinical therapist, and two licensed and accredited victim advocates.
When survivors choose DLG to handle their sexual abuse case, in addition to top-rated legal representation they receive the support of our entire SAJE Team of dedicated professionals. Learn more about why DLG is the leading sexual abuse firm in California by calling 818-322-4056 or contacting us online.
The Thacher School Sexual Abuse Scandal and California AB 218
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