ALAMEDA COUNTY — Two East Bay school districts should have noticed signs early on that two teachers in their classrooms were allegedly child molesters preying on students, according to a pair of lawsuits filed this summer.
The most recent suit, filed against a Union City district this month, alleges that school officials ignored signs of child molestation and sexual assault years before a teacher, now a convicted pedophile, was arrested.
San Jose-based attorney B. Robert Allard, who has handled several child abuse cases in the Bay Area in the last decade, called the suit against New Haven Unified School District in Union City, the most “extraordinary case” he’s seen of an abusive teacher that went unreported for a long period of time.
In the case, Allard represents a now-13-year-old-girl (and her guardian). She was 8 years old during the 2011-2012 school year at Alvarado Elementary School when third-grade teacher Michael Howey, molested her and other students.
Howey, who has since been convicted of lewd acts with a child and is serving prison time, would select some students to spend time with him in his locked classroom during recess, where the molestation occurred. Prosecutors said there were as many as 9 victims in the case.
“He was a prolific pedophile, who was very clearly comfortable in his surroundings,” Allard said.
The lawsuit filed this summer alleges school staff knew about the special recess time, and did nothing.
It wasn’t until April 12, 2013 when another teacher reported seeing Howey, 47 at the time, kiss one of the students, and reported it to the principal, police said.
The lawsuit maintains there were previous reported incidents where Howey inappropriately touched students at schools in the district, but there is no evidence that Howey was ever disciplined and he had no previous criminal record.
Officials with New Haven Unified did not respond to requests for comment on the case.
The other suit, filed by Allard in June against the Fremont Unified School District, centers around a physical education teacher who allegedly engaged in sexual activity with a then-16-year-old boy. Corine “Cory” Audiat was 32 when she was arrested last year on suspicion of engaging in sexual relations with the teen at Washington High School. She resigned from her position after her arrest in December 2016, according to the district.
Allard said if the Fremont school had been paying attention, there were clear and obvious red flags that should have led to earlier reports of the suspicious activity.
Audiat, a former PE teacher, is accused of “grooming” her students, or enticing them with months of flirtation, texting and open displays of affection, such as hugging. The criminal case is currently pending trial.
In May 2016, Audiat allegedly texted the 16-year-old boy that she wanted to pull him into the gym equipment room and kiss him, the lawsuit states. The relationship turned sexual the next month, according to the lawsuit.
The allegations weren’t made public until Audiat confided in a gym friend, who reported the incident to police, Allard said.
Allard said his client, who has now graduated from high school, was ashamed and traumatized that his first experience with anyone was with a trusted teacher, that memory forever etched in mind.
A Fremont Unified representative said they could not comment on pending litigation.
Besides financial restitution in the cases (the lawsuits both ask for more than $25,000), Allard said he wants school districts to properly train teachers and administrators in predatory training.
“We’re not talking about an extraordinary means to fix this problem. It is literally one hour of training at the beginning of each year,” he said.
Teachers are mandated reporters, legally bound to report any “reasonable suspicion” that a child has been abused or neglected, according to the California Department of Education. Red flags for abuse and neglect are often identified by observing a child’s behavior at school, recognizing physical signs and observations during routine interactions with certain adults, the state said.
According to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the number of sexual misconduct allegations against teachers rose by 70 percent in 2014.
Allard has represented clients in the Morgan Hill Unified School District case with teacher John Loyd and Evergreen School District in San Jose with former teacher Craig Chandler for similar molestation-related cases, where he says schools ignored warning signs, that resulted in combined settlement amounts of $23.5 million.
“These are very expensive lessons to learn for these school districts. But it’s incredibly inexpensive to educate and train these educators so these pedophiles do not have access to children,” he said.
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