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School district calls sexual abuse victim ‘careless, negligent’

by Matthias Gafni, Contra Costa Times –

MORAGA, Calif. — Kristen Cunnane was “careless and negligent” and contributed to her ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of a middle school teacher, a California school district claimed in its first legal response to the University of California, Berkeley swim coach’s lawsuit against the school district and three former administrators.

The Moraga School District and three other defendants claim Cunnane “was herself responsible for the acts and damages of which she claims,” in the Oct. 24 legal filing.

“Carelessness and negligence on (Cunnane’s) part proximately contributed to the happenings of the incident and to the injuries, loss and damages,” they claim.

When she read the legal response, Cunnane, 30, said she was floored.

“It felt like I got punched in the stomach, and I stood up and thought about how young I was when I was 12 to 13 years old at the school,” said Cunnane, whose suit was filed in September. “For them to use words like ‘negligent’ and ‘responsible’ just broke my heart.”

The school district’s attorney said Thursday that the language used as part of its legal stance was appropriate and necessary at the start of such a civil case with significant financial ramifications. The response did not specify how Cunnane was “negligent” or “responsible” for the abuse.

Louis Leone said “every potential defense” must be raised in such legal filings, “since failure to do so results in a waiver of the defense.”

“It is imperative that all possible defenses be raised at this point in time. As more facts become known, the district will then reassess its defenses,” the Walnut Creek attorney said.

Nonetheless, a youth law expert and Cunnane’s attorney called the response “appalling.”

“That (the) defendants would go so far as to blame a child victim of sexual abuse rather than admit or even examine their own wrongdoing is offensive and appalling,” Paul Llewellyn said in an email.

Cunnane was sexually abused by two Moraga middle school teachers in the 1990s, one of them over a four-year period. She sued the district, retired Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School principal Bill Walters, retired assistant principal Paul Simonin and retired superintendent John Cooley in Contra Costa Superior Court, saying they repeatedly ignored allegations of abuse, allowing her and other students to be victimized. The lawsuit alleges negligence, fraudulent concealment, conspiracy to commit fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and cites an investigation by the Contra Costa Times as revealing for the first time the district’s knowledge of the alleged abuse.

Former Joaquin Moraga P.E. teacher Julie Correa pleaded guilty to rape and sexual battery against Cunnane over a four-year period beginning in 1996, when Cunnane was an eighth-grader. Cunnane said Correa groomed her after she confided in her that Joaquin Moraga science teacher Daniel Witters had molested her. Witters committed suicide shortly after a group of girls came forward with allegations in 1996, and police stopped investigating him criminally after that.

Last month, two unidentified women filed claims for more than $15 million each claiming the same defendants’ inaction led to them being sexually abused at the hands of Witters.

A youth law attorney said he understands the district’s need to include many affirmative defenses in its legal response to the suit but said that assigning responsibility to Cunnane for the abuse was inappropriate.

“I think it is reprehensible to place the blame on the young girl who was victimized,” said William Grimm, senior attorney with Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law. “The district’s defense has to be plausible … and this doesn’t even pass the smell test, in my opinion.”

The impulse to blame herself for what happened to her as a youngster has been hard to overcome, Cunnane said.

“Part of my healing is understanding that it’s not my fault, and here I’m having the school district tell me it is my fault,” she said. “It’s just very difficult to deal with.”

The Moraga school board is expected to discuss the lawsuit at its Nov. 13 meeting.

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