Teens blame school district for abuse

Lawsuit: MHUSD turned blind eye to abuse by Kevin Cole

The families of three teenage girls have filed court documents accusing the Morgan Hill Unified School District of negligence that allowed former drama production contractor Kevin Cole to sexually abuse the plaintiffs at various times in recent years on a local high school campus.

The complaint, filed in January in Santa Clara County Superior Court, seeks an unspecified amount of damages from MHUSD and Cole for “mental, physical and nervous pain and suffering” due to the abuse, and for costs associated with medical and therapeutic treatment of the girls’ injuries, reads the lawsuit filed by attorneys Robert Allard and Lauren Cerri of the Corsiglia McMahon and Allard law firm. Two of the girls’ families are also suing Morgan Hill-based youth theater company South Valley Dance Arts—which hired Cole for a show where some of the alleged abuse occurred—for negligence.

Cole, 36, of Newark, was convicted last year of misdemeanor annoying and molesting a child in relation to an incident backstage at an SVDA production of The Nutcracker at Sobrato High School in Morgan Hill in late 2017. During the jury trial, six teenage girls testified that Cole had inappropriately touched and spoken to them during theater instruction or performances over the course of four years.

The jury found him guilty in June 2018 of victimizing one of the accusers. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, and is currently on probation for the criminal conviction, according to court records. He later filed a notice to appeal the conviction, which is currently under consideration by the courts. Cole could not be reached for comment on the recent lawsuit.

During the 2017 SVDA production, Cole was accused of touching female performers on intimate body parts, over their clothing, while helping them change backstage. A parent called Morgan Hill police, who arrested him as he was leaving Sobrato’s theater the night of Dec. 1, 2017.

The victim of the crime for which Cole was convicted last year is not among the plaintiffs in the January lawsuit, which is in its initial litigation stages. Two of the plaintiffs are alleging that Cole’s abuse took place during the Nutcracker performance.

In a previous unrelated case, the Allard firm in March 2017 secured an $8.25 million settlement from MHUSD on behalf of three young girls who were sexually molested by John Loyd, their fifth-grade teacher at Paradise Valley Elementary School. Loyd was convicted of molesting four children on the southwest Morgan Hill elementary campus, and is currently serving a 40-year prison term.

Cerri said the plaintiffs in the Cole case are hoping to resolve their complaint with MHUSD out of court.

“Given our experience with the MHUSD, we are hopeful that we will be able to come to a resolution that is in the best interests of our clients without much involvement of our clients or having to proceed to trial,” Cerri said.

It was also revealed during Cole’s criminal trial that, prior to the alleged abuse during The Nutcracker,” Cole had been the subject of a history of complaints to MHUSD staff.

In 2014, a Sobrato student told school staff that Cole—then a school employee—had inappropriately touched and spoken to her. Two school staff members at the time—drama teacher Chris DeMelo and assistant principal Vera Gomes—conducted a cursory investigation into the student’s accusations and found her complaint not credible. The school employees did not report the abuse allegations to police.

Cole continued to be employed by the school district until 2016, according to testimony in the criminal trial.

While the plaintiffs in the January lawsuit are listed anonymously, this incident closely matches the experience of plaintiff “Jane Doe 3” as described in Allard’s complaint. This girl was “sexually abused, molested, harassed and/or assaulted” by Cole on the Sobrato High campus, “many times in front of school staff,” the complaint reads. The victim, a Sobrato student at the time, was subjected to Cole’s abuse starting with the 2014-15 school year, through August 2017.

Allard’s lawsuit says a complaint in 2014 to MHUSD staff had to do with Cole’s behavior toward two female students. The January lawsuit notes that state law considers the MHUSD employees to be mandatory reporters of alleged child abuse, and accuses them of shirking their legal obligation to report the complaints about Cole to local police.

MHUSD “owed a duty, through its employees, to supervise and protect such children entrusted to its care from harm…and to report any reasonable suspicion of child abuse” to law enforcement, the lawsuit reads.

MHUSD spokeswoman Lanae Bays said the district is currently “limited in the ability to respond” to the recent allegations, in order to protect the privacy of minors and employees involved.

“We can share that Kevin Cole was not employed by the district at the time of the incidents that led to his arrest in 2017, and the minors involved were not Morgan Hill Unified School District students,” Bays said on behalf of MHUSD.

The district filed its response to the complaint in Santa Clara County Superior Court Feb. 11. The response from MHUSD’s attorneys argues the the district is not responsible for each of the claims listed in the plaintiff’s lawsuit for various reasons.

Cole has previously worked as a MHUSD employee in the Sobrato High drama department. In 2017, he was a drama lighting and sound technician contractor approved by the district for productions on campus. The district recommended that SVDA use him for their production of The Nutcracker Nov. 30-Dec. 1, 2017, according to the January lawsuit.

The district’s recommendation of Cole to SVDA, years after at least one Sobrato student complained about his behavior, is further evidence of MHUSD’s liability, reads the January lawsuit.

Plaintiffs “Jane Doe 1” and “Jane Doe 2” included SVDA in their complaint for negligence because the non-profit company failed to institute safeguards and procedures—such as vetting adults who worked backstage or requiring the presence of at least two grownups in the costume changing area—that could have prevented someone like Cole from preying on them, reads the lawsuit. SVDA had “a duty to supervise and protect (the two plaintiffs) from inappropriate and/or predatory behavior by individuals it selected or retained to work around them,” the complaint continues.

SVDA did not return a phone call requesting comment on the January lawsuit. Academy staff previously argued that MHUSD gave them no choice but to use Cole as their lighting and sound technician for their productions at Sobrato, which the district owns.

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