For 16 years, the Moraga School District has kept a terrible secret: the truth about its role in a sensational teacher sex abuse scandal.
The scandal led to the suicide of a popular teacher in 1996 as allegations about his abuse of students emerged. Now an investigation by this newspaper reveals that school administrators knew of some allegations against teacher Dan Witters at least two years earlier, and that Witters' principal at Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School repeatedly violated his legal obligations to inform law enforcement authorities.
District officials learned of Principal Bill Walters' failure to report in two internal memos, but he is a principal in the district to this day, working at Los Perales Elementary School. He announced his retirement two months ago, just weeks after the district turned over to reporters the records of that internal investigation.
While declining to address the Walters situation, current district Superintendent Bruce Burns said reporting procedures have been significantly strengthened.
But Kristen Cunnane, who was sexually abused by another teacher at Joaquin Moraga in the mid- to late 1990s, said the district's inaction at the time cannot be excused. Cunnane's abuser, Julie Correa, knew early on of the allegations against Witters and was aware that administrators were looking the other way, Cunnane said.
"I feel like they were creating an environment that was allowing for (the abuse), and Julie was testing the waters and seeing what she could get away with," Cunnane said. "Witters was the first step in everything."
It was June 1994 when Walters received a high school girl's letter saying Witters had molested her four years earlier at Joaquin Moraga. The girl wanted Walters to take action "to prevent such an incident from occurring again," according to the letter. But Walters moved gingerly.
In a Nov. 24, 1996, memo to then-Superintendent John Cooley, Walters explained that he tried to call Witters at home, but did not reach him. Because the school year had just ended, he decided to take up the matter with Witters after summer vacation. When that conversation finally took place, Witters denied the allegation.
"As (the student) stated that she was uncertain what she wanted to be a result of her letter, I did not pursue the issue," Walters wrote. He also said he gave Witters a copy of the letter, with the student's name on it.
Under California's Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, any reasonable suspicion of child abuse in such a setting must be reported to law enforcement. One youth law expert said Walters broke two misdemeanor laws, first by failing to disclose a "cut-and-dried case" of child abuse and second by revealing the accuser's identity to Witters.
William Grimm, senior attorney with the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law, said that because pedophiles rarely strike only once, reporting suspected molestations immediately is vital. But "mandated reporters" are rarely prosecuted for not doing so, he added.
"I wonder if Mr. Walters thinks back and considers how many other victims may have been victimized in the meantime since he didn't report it," Grimm said.
The 1994 letter was the first of at least eight complaints lodged by students and a parent over a two-year period regarding Witters' behavior, ranging from sexual molestation to making racist comments and degrading students with profanity, this newspaper's investigation found. Despite the warnings, Witters continued to instruct at the school until 1996, allegedly molesting at least two other students.
Particularly painful for Cunnane was a March 16, 1995, letter Correa, her abuser, wrote to Walters, detailing inappropriate behavior by Witters. Correa reported witnessing Witters kissing a Joaquin Moraga student on the cheek, and another girl told Correa that Witters whispered in her ear, licked it, and kissed her cheek. A third told Correa that Witters patted her on the butt.
In a second memo to the superintendent, Walters said he could not remember doing anything in response.
"I cannot remember if I spoke to (Witters) about this, and I have no documentation regarding this incident other than the note from (Correa)," Walters wrote.
Though Correa's note was not as sexually explicit as the 1994 letter, Grimm said its allegations also should have been reported to police, by both Correa and Walters. The investigative files do not indicate if the district took action against Walters for his failures.
By fall 1996, at least six girls had come forward, two with accusations of significant sexual abuse. A short time later, Witters' car was found at the bottom of a cliff. Walters was teaching at Joaquin Moraga by then on a voluntary leave of absence from his principal's duties, but the principal and assistant principal quickly reported the new allegations to Child Protective Services. Moraga police did not pursue an investigation because Witters had killed himself.
The allegations against Witters and his suicide whipped Moraga into a frenzy, with parents demanding change. The school board posthumously fired Witters, and "minor revisions" to policies on sexual harassment, handling of district records and other internal controls were announced in March 1997. By November 1997, the district sent Moraga police a detailed summary and timeline of the Witters abuse allegations; however, there was no mention of the 1994 or 1995 abuse claims.
Burns said policies have gotten stronger and training more intense and frequent since then. Every new employee is fingerprinted and must sign a document acknowledging their obligations as a mandated reporter. However, Grimm said, those requirements are "not at all unusual."
The district has had no reported molesters since Correa, Burns said.
Burns wouldn't say whether Walters' failures at Joaquin Moraga played a part in his pending departure. "It's a confidential personnel matter, but I can tell you that he's devoted 45 years of service to education."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684.
WHAT IS THE LAW?
The Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, which is part of the California Penal Code, is a set of laws passed in 1974. Over the years, numerous amendments have expanded the definition of child abuse and who must report.
WHAT IS A MANDATED REPORTER?
A mandated reporter is someone who encounters children through their employment. He or she is required by the state to report any known or suspected instances of child abuse or neglect to the county child welfare department or a law enforcement agency.
HOW MUCH PROOF IS NEEDED TO REPORT?
No proof of abuse or neglect is needed, only "reasonable suspicion" that child abuse or neglect may have occurred. Reporters should not investigate; that is the job of law enforcement and/or the county child welfare department. A report must be sent within 36 hours and delayed reporting may hinder investigation by the appropriate agencies.
IS INFORMING A SUPERVISOR SUFFICIENT?
No. Telling a supervisor does not meet the mandated reporting requirement.
WHAT HAPPENS IF A REPORT IS NOT MADE?
Legally mandated reporters can be criminally liable for failing to report suspected abuse or neglect. The penalty for this misdemeanor is up to six months in jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine. Mandated reporters can also be subject to a lawsuit and found liable for damages, especially if the child-victim or another child is further victimized because of the failure to report.
Source: California Department of Social Services