A former teacher at a Moraga middle school rocked by a 1990s sex abuse scandal has come forward to say she warned the school principal and others on multiple occasions during that period about her suspicions but that nothing was done.
Carol Scozzafava said she complained to at least seven administrators at least a dozen times about a teacher later accused of molestation by several students, but was ignored and even punished for her actions.
Now 64 and going by her married name Carol Buchanan, she described to this newspaper a cavalier attitude by Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School administrators at the time, brushing aside serious warning signs from her and leading to her resignation. Her allegations are consistent with a 1990s cover-up by the district unearthed by this newspaper, but suggest district officials at the time may have been even more protective of the suspected abuser than has previously been revealed.
Documents that might have corroborated Scozzafava's complaints have not been discovered, but Superintendent Bruce Burns said his district is still searching.
"We're interested in uncovering as much as we possibly can to move forward with all of this," Burns said. "We've made huge improvements in student safety in this district and I want to continue those efforts."
In 1996, several girls came forward with abuse allegations against Dan Witters, a popular science teacher at the East Bay middle school. He was placed on leave and killed himself days later, halting a burgeoning police investigation. Administrators at the time assured a shocked community the allegations against Witters were new. But an investigative report by this newspaper last year uncovered dozens of documents that show administrators had heard sexual abuse allegations and a litany of improper-behavior complaints from students, parents and a teacher, but did not report them to police as mandated by law -- and allowed Witters to keep teaching. Four victims have now sued the district and three retired administrators for more than $40 million, saying their failures left them vulnerable to the molestation.
Attorneys for the defendants, including former principal Bill Walters, vice-principal Paul Simonin and superintendent John Cooley, did not return requests for comment this week.
Scozzafava, now retired and working from her Davis home on her doctoral degree in education, did not learn the recent revelations about Witters until October, when she read media reports on Kristen Cunnane, a Cal swim coach molested by Witters and raped by now-incarcerated former Joaquin Moraga PE teacher Julie Correa.
"When I read that Bill Walters had not reported, I sat at my computer desk, pounded my hands and just said, 'I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!'" Scozzafava said, tearing up in an interview at a Davis park. "I told them that this was coming down and no one did anything."
Cunnane called Scozzafava's revelations "heart-wrenching."
"I can't believe how many people at the school knew about the sexual abuse and how many warnings the district ignored," said Cunnane. "To find out that there was someone at the school actually trying to help us and that she got punished for it is incredible. Their job is to protect kids -- not each other."
New teacher on campus
Hired in 1989, Witters was popular with students and quickly buddied up with Principal Walters and Correa.
But soon, girls confided in Scozzafava about "weird" incidents in Witters' classroom that made them uncomfortable, she said. Scozzafava advised the girls to talk to the school counselor.
Another girl then came to her, describing more details about being alone with Witters in a backroom, with him rubbing backs and massaging shoulders. Scozzafava said she walked that girl to the counselor to report the incident, but nothing happened.
Internal district documents show a girl writing to the principal in 1994 saying Witters molested her in June 1990 -- his first year on campus -- about the time students began confiding in Scozzafava.
Complaints got worse
As the years passed, complaints increased, Scozzafava said. She said she saw Witters in his classroom with a female on a table, her legs wrapped around his waist. The next morning, she confronted Walters.
She recalls that the principal declined to respond, saying, "I think you should talk to him, it would be much better coming from a peer."
In all of her conversations, she said the allegations were always very "nebulous," with people dancing around the subject as if it was taboo. Internal district documents from 1994 and 1995 show students, parents and a teacher sent Walters at least eight different written notices warning of Witters' inappropriate and abusive behavior. Witters, however, received only minor rebukes and often argued he was being targeted unfairly, according to internal documents.
Scozzafava said one girl in her class regularly requested hall passes to visit Witters' classroom. One spring day, after returning from Witters' room, the girl started crying and hyperventilating, Scozzafava said; an ambulance was called. Witters rushed to the scene, she said, whispered in the girl's ear while she was on the gurney and then turned to Scozzafava, demanding, "What did you do to her?"
Soon after that, Walters brought Scozzafava into his office and showed her a petition signed by a number of parents -- including the crying girl's mother -- calling for the district to reprimand her for poor teaching, she said. Walters sent her home for the day. She said she later was told that Walters and Witters orchestrated the petition.
Later, Scozzafava said, she was temporarily relieved of her teaching duties.
She said she was moved five times in the last seven years of her 24-year teaching career in Moraga.
She said she eventually told Superintendent Cooley about Walters and Witters, and he promised to look into it. After Witters' suicide, Scozzafava went to a school board member's house and told two trustees the same thing.
Cooley recommended Scozzafava take an indefinite leave, she said, which she did reluctantly. After securing a teaching job in Vacaville, she resigned Aug. 26, 1997, the same year she won a Contra Costa teacher-of-the-year award.
"At that point, I was very sick and tired of the whole mess," she said. "I'd done this all these years to protect the kids and I was all alone."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.