Court upholds ruling that West Linn-Wilsonville School District isn't liable for sexual assault of former students
Warning: The following article contains accounts of sexual abuse to minors that may be distressing for some readers.
A recent court ruling upheld a 2018 decision that the West Linn-Wilsonville School District was not liable for the sexual abuse of two students by former educator Jonathan Peachey.
On April 6, the Oregon Court of Appeals decided to uphold a decision made by Clackamas County Circuit Court in December 2018, which stated that the district was not negligent in a case of sexual abuse involving a student who attended West Linn High School.
The circuit court concluded that because the abuse happened off campus, not during school hours and under the supervision of the plaintiff's family, the district did not have a duty to supervise or protect the then 14-year-old and 17-year-old. The appeals court agreed with that ruling.
The case and what it means
In Feburary 2016, Peachey pleaded guilty at the Lake Oswego Municipal Court for the sexual abuse of two students, who were both minors at the time. In two separate incidents, Peachey groped both teenagers while sharing a bed with them at a Lake Oswego home in 2015. The former educator served two months in prison.
In July 2017, the two former students (known as F and S in court documents) filed a lawsuit against the district, asking for $3 million for each plaintiff — a total of $6 million for the harm and long-term impacts they suffered due to abuse.
They were represented by Crew Janci LLP of Portland, a legal firm known for representing victims of sexual abuse against large institutions. The lawsuit alleged that the district knew Peachey engaged in concerning behavior, like hanging out with students off campus, and was negligent in taking action.
The negligence lawsuit claim against the district was dismissed and shortly thereafter appealed by the plaintiffs.
In April, the appeals court affirmed the original 2018 ruling, stating that "the trial court did not err."
The West Linn-Wilsonville School District told Pamplin Media Group that it does not comment on court litigation.
What led to lawsuit
Peachey worked in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District as a teacher and coach for 12 years. He also was the adviser for the school's Link Crew, which helps incoming freshmen transition to the school.
According to the appeals court documents, Peachey had developed a reputation among students as an "easy teacher … generally well-liked." He occasionally would take students off campus during lunch to local restaurants and hang up photographs of students taken off campus around his classroom.
Other inappropriate behavior cited was that Peachey would sometimes hug his students. He also spent time with F and his friends outside of school, sometimes drinking alcohol on those occasions around the students.
Peachy and F met in summer 2015, right after the student had moved to West Linn from California to attend school.
Alongside his sister, F lived with his cousin, identified in court documents as Swanson, and her boyfriend, identified in documents as Olson, in their home in Lake Oswego. Swanson was friends with Peachey, and Peachey occasionally would house-sit for Swanson, staying overnight while F and his sister were present, the court documents said. The children's mother was aware that Peachey was house-sitting without Swanson and Olson home, and aware her children were present, according to the court documents.
During this time the other student, S, began attending summer gatherings with Peachey at Swanson's home.
Peachey and S allegedly often would sleep in the same bedroom after the parties. One morning, Swanson witnessed Peachey and S come out of the same bedroom; Swanson told him that was "inappropriate" and could not happen again.
In July 2015, S claimed that Peachey, who was 34 at the time, grabbed his genitals while they were lying in bed together. S felt uncomfortable and left.
In September, during one of the times that Swanson and Olson were out of town, Peachey and F slept in one bedroom, with his sister in another room, the court documents say. During one of the nights, Peachey was intoxicated and allegedly attempted to spoon F. He then groped the 14-year-old, according to the court documents.
F immediately left the bedroom and told his sister what had happened. Reports were made to law enforcement and school authorities. Peachey was arrested and spent two weeks in the Clackamas County Jail.
Peachey pleaded guilty in February 2016 in the Lake Oswego Municipal Court to two counts of third-degree sexual abuse. He served a total of 60 days in jail for third-degree sexual abuse and served three years of probation. He is registered as a sex offender and cannot teach.
Why court made decision
The Clackamas County Circuit Court ruling, which was upheld by the appeals court, stated that because the sexual abuse of the students happened off campus and at one of the minor's homes, the school district was not liable to protect the students as they were not under its supervision.
"The assault did not occur during school hours. It did not happen on school grounds. And it did not take place during a school-sponsored activity or at any time F was within the district's custodial control," the appeals court ruling stated. "Rather, it occurred in the evening, at a private residence, after F returned to his parents' custodial control."
The plaintiff's attorneys argued that the district owed its students a level of protection and alleged that the district was "directly negligent" in failing to investigate rumors of Peachey's inappropriate relationships with students, specifically "minor male students."
It also was argued that the district owed students some level of responsibility due to the "special relationship" between students and teachers.
The appeals court ruling summarized the plaintiff's argument as stating "the educator-student relationship is a special relationship and … because of that relationship, the district owes its students, including F, a heightened duty of care to protect them from abuse."
The district acknowledged that it owes "a duty of supervision" to its students and protects them from harm, but only during school hours and on campus. The appeals court concurred.
"Parents entrust their children to the care and supervision of their children's school. Because parents must relinquish their children to the school each day, and because those parents are necessarily absent once the transfer of custody has been accomplished. … But when parents resume custodial control of their children, that rationale disappears, and the school's 'duty of supervision' comes to an end," the court documents stated.
The appeals court sided with the circuit court in concluding that there was "insufficient evidence" provided by the plaintiff that pointed to any foreseeable risk or that the district ignored warning signs that Peachey would "sexually abuse minor high school males, including F."
Further, the appeals court stated that the district was not responsible for the decisions F's family made about their child's care.
"The district was not involved in any of the details concerning how F would be supervised and cared for while living with Swanson and Olson in Lake Oswego," the ruling read. "The fact that Swanson and Olson chose a house-sitter who also happened to be employed by the district does not change the fact that the district had no knowledge of those details. Peachey's criminal assault of F, under those circumstances, was not foreseeable."
Third suit against Peachey, district
In 2019 another student, referred to as B.T, filed a lawsuit against Peachey for $2.5 million in damages relating to sexual abuse, negligence and emotional distress. The then 18-year-old male plaintiff said when he was 15-16 he was "groomed" by Peachey with attention, food and social outings.
He also alleged that he was sexually abused during this time and made similar claims of negligence by the school district.
"West Linn-Wilsonville School District had reasonable cause to believe that Peachey had engaged in sexual contact with and had abused B.T. and/or other minor male West Linn High School students" and failed to report the abuse, according to the plaintiff. A court ruling for this case has yet to be made.
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