Lawsuits Focus On Alleged Negligence In RUSD Allowing Teacher’s Molestations

Two lawsuits recently filed against the Redlands Unified School District and several of its employees alleging negligence and sexual battery in connection with the molestation of five former high school students by former teacher Kevin Kirkland dwell at length upon knowledge school district personnel had with regard to Kirkland’s activity and their failure to protect his known victims and other students who have not come forward. In addition, the lawsuit brings into question the lenient treatment Kirkland and another teacher in the Redlands Unified School District who had sexual relations with at least one student received from the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, which acquiesced in sentences for the perpetrators consisting of a minute fraction of prison time accorded other individuals convicted of similar sex crimes against children.
What is now known is that Kirkland had been sexually harassing and engaging in improper activities with female students for over a decade. Kirkland was put on leave by the district in April 2016. He was arrested the following month in Arizona, waived extradition and was returned to California where he was charged with engaging in multiple sex acts with an underage female student and distributing harmful matter to a minor with the intent to seduce.
Bail for Kirkland, then 56 of Rancho Cucamonga, was set at $1.5 million and was reduced less than a week later to $275,000, though he remained in custody. Six months ago, in April 2017, he pleaded guilty to molesting four female Redlands High School students. He was sentenced June 12 to two years in prison, whereupon he was granted credit for time served and good behavior and released from custody the same day, having served one day less than 13 months in county custody, at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga from May 13, 2016 until June 12. 2017.
Kirkland was represented by attorney Sean O’Connor.
On September 14, attorneys Morgan Stewart and Saul Wolf of the Irvine-based law firm Manly, Stewart & Finaldi filed a suit on behalf of a 19-year-old former Redlands High School student, identified as Jane RSL Doe, in which she names Kirkland as a defendant, along with the Redlands Unified School District, Redlands High School, former Redlands High School Principal Christina Rivera, former Redlands School District Superintendent Lori Rhodes, and the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources Sabine Robertson-Phillips. In the suit, Jane RSL Doe claims she was abused by Kirkland beginning when she was 15. On September 18 Stewart and Wolf filed a second suit on behalf of four former Redlands High School Students, a 25-year-old woman, Jane RWB Doe, who maintains she was abused by Kirkland between the time she was thirteen years old and seventeen years old; a 23-year-old woman, Jane RJH Doe, who maintains she was abused by Kirkland from the time she was sixteen until she was seventeen; an eighteen-year-old woman, Jane RSA Doe, who claims she was abused by Kirkland between the time she was fifteen and seventeen years old; and an eighteen-year-old woman, Jane RDA Doe, who claims she was abused by Kirkland when she was fifteen to seventeen years old. Kirkland, the district, the high school, Rivera, Rhodes and Robertson-Phillips are likewise named in the second suit.
The law firm of Manly, Stewart & Finaldi won a $6 million settlement for another client against the Redlands Unified School District in the 2016 case involving Laura Whitehurst, a teacher at Redlands High School and Citrus Valley High School who became pregnant by an under-aged student.
The current lawsuits allege that school administrators ignored reports of alleged sexual misconduct by Kirkland going back to 2006, encouraged students not to report alleged sexual harassment and abuse to the police, lied to police and refused to cooperate with the police investigation of Kirkland.
According to the complaint, administrators received complaints that Kirkland allegedly engaged in sexually inappropriate conduct with two female students in 2006 and in 2012. Rather than remove Kirkland from the classroom, the students were removed from the classroom.
The complaint also alleges that RUSD administrators pressured students not to report alleged sexual assaults and harassment by Kirkland to the police.
According to the suit, The “Redlands Unified School District and its employees including Sabine, Rivera and Rhodes received unequivocal notice of Kirkland’s sexual propensities towards female underage students of the district in 2006, 2007, 2012, 2015 and 2016. At each of these periods and other time periods, Redlands Unified School District, Redlands High School, Sabine, Rivera and Rhodes had ‘reasonable suspicion’ that Kirkland was suspect in the potential of child abuse to minor students. Despite receiving no less than five separate notices of Kirkland’s inappropriate actions with female students, the employees of Redlands Unified School District, including but not limited to Sabine, Rivera and Rhodes, did nothing more than warn Kirkland to stop his behavior, refusing to remove him.”
The suit maintains that in 2006 or 2007 “Plaintiff Jane RWB Doe reported to Rivera that Kirkland repeatedly was rubbing her foot with his foot in class, despite her efforts to have him stop. Jane RWB Doe further reported that Kirkland would touch her hair and touch her shoulder” leaving “Jane RWB Doe feeling uncomfortable. In response, after reporting this incident, Rivera removed Jane RWB Doe from Kirkland’s class, yet left Kirkland in place with continued access to female students. However, under Redlands Unified School District’s policy and practice, [district officials] took no action against Kirkland for the inappropriate touching of Jane RWB Doe on her feet, on her shoulder and with her hair. Subsequent to her report, Kirkland would then pass Jane RWB Doe in the hall and would make comments on her looks, including telling her that she was pretty, which would leave Jane RWB Doe feeling uncomfortable. Because Redlands Unified School District had failed to cease Kirkland’s behavior, he then escalated his behavior by texting Jane RWB Doe, including sending her texts of his pool and inviting her over to his house and telling her how pretty she was. This student filed a further incident report with Redlands High School, but heard nothing and Kirkland was left in place to continue to seek other students to abuse. Jane RWB DOE acknowledged and recognized that Kirkland sought out those that were weak and bullied and befriended them, and such knowledge was communicated to Redlands High School, Redlands Unified School District and Rivera as part of her report. Thus Redlands Unified School District was on particular notice that it needed to be cognizant that Kirkland targeted a select group of students, particularly those that were most vulnerable to his advances. Yet, Redlands Unified School District did nothing to protect those students in response to the reports of Jane RWB Doe. Jane RWB Doe made a written incident report of the sexual misconduct of Kirkland with Redlands High School and Rivera. Redlands Unified School District has failed to produce upon request the written incident report, and is believed to have destroyed, misplaced or lost such written incident report, either intentionally or unintentionally. This evidences the desire of Redlands Unified School District to cover up the behavior of its staff who abuse, and allow them to remain in their positions.”
The suit further states that “In 2012, Redlands Unified School District received a further report regarding the inappropriate actions of Kirkland. Therein, Sabine and Rhodes received copies of text messages from Plaintiff Jane RJH Doe, whom Kirkland had been repeatedly texting. These texts included an indication that Kirkland was going out of town and [suggested] that the minor female student should join him on a trip to Palm Springs. Kirkland further advised that this student should come to his house for a barbecue while his wife was out of town. Jane RJH Doe described and identified that it was clear that Kirkland was attempting to further an inappropriate relationship with Jane RJH Doe and that he was a predator. Sabine, Rivera and Rhodes received copies of these text messaged from Jane RJH Doe, which included such statements as she was ‘pretty,’ that all the boys liked her, and that he ‘missed her.’ Despite a two time prior history of sexual misconduct, once again, Redlands Unified School District did nothing to protect its students from Kirkland. Instead, Sabine, with the approval and acknowledgment of Rhodes and Rivera, told Kirkland to stop texting students and stop behaving inappropriately. Kirkland was then told he would be watched for a period of forty-five days. Kirkland’s behavior did not change. Rather, concurrently with this ‘slap on the hand’ by Sabine, Rhodes and Rivera and the Redlands Unified School District, Kirkland was raping one or more minors that attended Redlands High School and sexually harassing and abusing others. Had Sabine, Rhodes and Rivera, among others performed any investigation, or spoken to students and other staff, they would have uncovered Kirkland’s sexual abuse of minor students at Redlands High School by Kirkland. In 2015, yet another parent and student warned Redlands Unified School District that Kirkland was acting inappropriately with students. In this case, Redlands Unified School District received notice from the mother of a student, R.T., that ‘Kirkland and Plaintiff Jane RSL DOE had a “special relationship’” that was of concern. R.T. further reported that Plaintiff Jane RSL Doe and Kirkland would ‘go out to lunch on several occasions.’ The mother of R.T. recommended that Kirkland not be allowed to be with Plaintiff Jane RSL Doe outside of school time. Despite a recommendation from a parent of students about concerns and limiting Kirkland’s access to plaintiff, once again, Redlands Unified School District, Sabine, Rivera and Rhodes did nothing to Kirkland. Kirkland continued to be allowed to access plaintiffs during school hours, where he would engage in assaulting plaintiffs in his classroom. Kirkland was continuing to abuse and sexually harass, including inappropriate comments and touching towards all plaintiffs. In 2015, once again, Kirkland was found to have acted inappropriately with female students. Specifically, Kirkland admitted to taking students off-campus, Plaintiff Jane RSA Doe and Plaintiff RSL Doe, to buy them treats without proper approval of Redlands Unified School District. Kirkland further admitted to buying lunches for student and having students eat in his classroom, despite unequivocal policies that he was not to do so. Kirkland, in response to this inappropriate behavior with students was once again told to stop it. Redlands Unified School District took no further action despite his acknowledgment that he had acted inappropriately. It was during this incident in 2015 that Rivera referenced that Kirkland had a ‘history’ relative to his behavior with female students, but once again Rivera, Sabine, Rhodes and the Redlands Unified School District chose to take no action against Kirkland despite this history that spanned ten years. In or about April 2016, yet another student, Plaintiff Jane RDA Doe reported that Kirkland had been inappropriate with her. Specifically, Kirkland was reported to have touched the side of the student’s breast while rubbing her back in class. Jane RDA Doe reported that contact to Redlands Unified School District, and was told that it was an ‘administrative matter’ to be handled by the school and not a police matter. Thus, Kirkland sexually assaulted this female student, and was advised that the police would not be investigating the matter, that it would be handled by the Redlands Unified School District, despite the fact that in no less than four prior instances, the Redlands Unified School District Sabine, Rhodes and Rivera had taken no action (other than a mild warning) with respect to reports about Kirkland and his behavior.”
According to the suit, “Sabine and other employees of Redlands Unified School District were more concerned with the image of Redlands Unified School District than in protecting the students. Specifically, in 2012, Plaintiff RJH was told that Kirkland would be handled, and that she just could not go to the press about what Kirkland had done. Sabine, Rivera and Rhodes as well as other employees of Redlands Unified School District further dissuaded victims of Kirkland from reporting the sexual misconduct of Kirkland to law enforcement. Specifically, in 2016, when Jane RDA Doe reported that Kirkland had touched her breast, these staff members indicated that this would be an administrative matter and not a criminal matter, despite the fact that it was a sexual assault upon a minor. Sabine influenced the Redlands Police Department in disregarding the report of Jane RDA Doe to limit the damaging exposure to Redlands Unified School District. More specifically, among other things, Sabine represented to the Redlands Police Department that there was ‘nothing’ in Kirkland’s file, effectively stating that there was absolutely no history of harassment or abuse of minors by Kirkland within RUSD. Redlands Unified School District has a history of failing to protect students from sexual misconduct of its staff members, teachers and employees.”
According to the suit, the district has provided public statements to “present a cooperative face to the general public” while the district instead “hides information, destroys evidence, blocks investigations and misrepresents information to law enforcement to shield the liability of the district and its employees.”
The suit makes reference to the Whitehurst case. “In the ensuing investigation of the Whitehurst matter, Redlands Unified School District refused to cooperate and misled police about information,” the suit states. “In one such incident, in the process of the service of a subpoena related to sexual abuse of a student, Redlands police department personnel believe that Sabine actively attempted to destroy evidence related to that criminal investigation. Therein and specifically, the detective investigating testified that she watched Sabine destroy documents and that Sabine had to be removed and restrained during the service of a search warrant.”
Ultimately, according to the suit, the actions of Whitehurst and Kirkland and the district’s response to their depredations “culminated in an investigation by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office as to whether Redlands Unified School District or its employees should be criminally charged in failing to protect its students, and/or for obstruction of justice. The detectives of the Redlands Police Department recommended prosecution of the violations by the Redlands Unified School District and its employees, but the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office refused to prosecute the crimes. Despite the destruction of evidence, blocking the investigation and refusing to cooperate, the Redlands School District professed publicly that they were cooperating. The correlations between the Whitehurst and Kirkland are stark and alarming, and show that the Redlands Unified School District continues its pattern and practice of protection of predators over students.”
In the Kirkland case, the lawsuit alleges, “Sabine, Rivera and Rhodes, among other things, refused to cooperate with the police investigation by immediately invoking the presence of outside counsel during the police investigation, and having counsel McCune and Harber, present during percipient witness investigations; having an outside investigation firm, Nicole Miller & Associates, conduct pre-examinations of witness, prior to the police interviewing them; refusing in at least one incidence of a staff member, to present herself for an interview, Cassie Fuller, who also was known to show nude pictures of herself to students; telling the police that there was ‘nothing’ to Kirkland’s file, when in fact there were several warnings about inappropriate contact with students; directing a student, H.J., not to go to the press in an effort to hide the misdeeds of themselves and Kirkland, in 2012; failing to maintain the written incident report of B.W., either intentionally or negligently, that indicated the abuse by Kirkland; attempting to dissuade a victim of Kirkland from going to the police to report the sexual misconduct of Kirkland; failing to make any mandatory report of Kirkland as required under the law and in their positions of mandatory reporters, despite the recognition of multiple incidences that would lend themselves to reasonable suspicion of sexual abuse of students at the school; and giving a warning to Kirkland on multiple occasions despite his ‘history,’ allowing him continued access to female students at Redlands High School.”
In a statement made on behalf of the district, its legal counsel, Steve Harber, said, the lawsuit was based on misstatements of facts, mischaracterizations, hindsight and incorrect interpretations of the motives of district personnel and the legal and procedural limitations placed upon them. “This civil lawsuit, in which plaintiff seeks to recover money from the taxpayers of Redlands, makes unsubstantiated allegations based on speculation, misrepresentations, and hindsight,” said Harber. “The plaintiffs’ lawyers are attempting to construct a pattern of misbehavior by district employees in dealing with Mr. Kirkland that is not based on the facts available at that time. It is simply unfair to imply that district leaders did not take this case seriously. The facts of this case will show that the district disciplined Mr. Kirkland to the limits of our personnel policies based on what witnesses and others reported to us at the time.”
Harber said he has confidence the district will knock down the accusations once the matter goes to court. “The appropriate place to refute these allegations is through the judicial process,” he said.
Morgan Stewart this week told the Sentinel the lawsuits were filed to achieve justice for the victims of Kirkland’s action and the district’s inaction, as well as to change the culture of the district, in particular its administration. He said the district and its administration had failed to hold Kirkland to proper account repeatedly until external developments forced its hand. And he said, within the larger context of the Redlands community and its attendant institutions, an inappropriate atmosphere of permissiveness prevailed that represents a danger to potential future victims because inadequate punishment had been meted out to those now recognized to have engaged in serial criminal sexual offenses against defenseless minors.
The district attorney’s office’s treatment of Whitehurst, who was given a six-month sentence, and Kirkland, who was given a two-year sentence he did not fully serve, is perplexing and troubling, Stewart said. He suggested the district attorney’s office did not have the will to deal with Whitehurst or Kirkland harshly and to explore criminal charges against district officials who essentially facilitated them in their ravishments, since doing so would have delivered a blow to a major Redlands institution – the school district – and the larger Redlands social and political establishment. San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos, Kirkland said, is a creature of both the school district and the Redlands establishment. The one elected office Ramos held before he was elected district attorney in 2002 was that of Redlands school board member. Ramos, as well, is now the leading element of the so-called Redlands Political Machine, which extends back several generations and includes or included former Congressman Jerry Lewis, former supervisors Dennis Hansberger, Barbara Cram Riordan and Wesley Break, former county administrative officer Robert Covington, former district attorney Dennis Kottmeier and local businessmen Nick Cossoullis and Elbert “Fritz” Zeiner. The Redlands Political Machine at one time dominated San Bernardino County politics.
“There are two pieces of information that we have with regard to that which might be relevant,” said Stewart. “Mike Ramos used to be a board member with the Redlands Unified School District. In fact, he was the president of the school board. His now-ex-wife works for the school district. I don’t know how much those considerations played into the tenor of what the district attorney’s office did in the case involving Kevin Kirkland or the one involving Laura Whitehurst. We have clear and convincing evidence responsible and highly placed school district employees covered their activity up and destroyed evidence. The district attorney’s office had access to the same set of facts we do. The police said district officials had reasonable suspicion that Laura Whitehurst was abusing one of her students and failed to report it for over a year. The police report also shows there was reasonable suspicion that Kevin Kirkland was engaged in highly inappropriate acts. District officials not only did not effectively stop him, they actively discouraged some of his victim’s from reporting it to the police. The Redlands police department concluded school district administrators were criminally negligent, and provided a report to prosecutors documenting that. The district attorney’s office did not file charges arising out of this against anyone beyond Kevin Kirkland or Laura Whitehurst.”
The district attorney’s office declined to comment on the matter.
Stewart said the sexual abuse of students at Redlands High School was not limited to the victims of Kirkland and Whitehurst.
“At Redlands High School alone, there were four other teachers who have left because of inappropriate behavior with students in the last ten years,” he said. “We know that three of those teachers had their credentials pulled. The fourth I do not know about.”
“I cannot give you their names,” Stewart said. “I am telling you that based upon one former principal’s testimony.”     -Mark Gutglueck

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