MORAGA -- Seeking closure for a scandal that devastated a school community, the Moraga School District has agreed to pay $14 million to two women suing them over a teacher's sex abuse, in what is apparently the nation's largest molestation settlement per student.
The hefty settlement -- two other victims received $4.65 million last year -- is the price of the district's utter failure to investigate and report allegations of biology teacher Daniel Witters' behavior to authorities in the 1990s. Newly uncovered documents show more officials knew about those allegations than has previously been disclosed, and three were secretly reprimanded while the district assured the community administrators acted appropriately.
Not until this newspaper, with the help of victim Kristen Cunnane, reported on the officials' misdeeds in 2012 did the cover-up start to crumble. The other three victims have not gone public, but they and the district's critics have said Witters' abuse could have been stopped early on had the initial reports been taken seriously.
Current Superintendent Bruce Burns, who has worked to change the abuse reporting culture in the district, apologized for those missteps Tuesday.
"They were innocent victims, abused at a young age by someone in a position of trust," he said. "The betrayal of that trust caused real and lasting suffering. It is our hope that this settlement will allow these women to continue to heal and help them and their families move forward. It also allows our district to continue the work we have begun to improve student safeguards and be worthy of the trust parents place in us."
In a statement, the two victims said they are relieved at the settlement but "we remain appalled at the callous and reprehensible behavior of all the school officials and administrators involved. We will probably never understand how or why they chose to ignore and cover up the repeated warnings they received. It is devastating that all this could and should have been prevented had any one of them chosen to act."
The women's attorney David Ring, who specializes in school abuse cases, said the settlement was the largest ever of its kind, with each of the two victims receiving $7 million.
The payments will not affect the district's general fund as its insurance company from the 1990s will foot the bill, Burns said.
All four victims -- including Cunnane, assistant head coach for Cal's women's swim team who received $2.85 million last year -- named retired Principal Bill Walters, retired Assistant Principal Paul Simonin and retired Superintendent John Cooley as failing to report student reports of Witters' sexual abuse, thus allowing them to be victimized by the science teacher.
Ultimately, as complaints against Witters mounted, he was placed on leave from Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School in 1996 and drove his car off a cliff days later.
While the criminal case stalled with his suicide, the community was clamoring for answers after hearing rumors of earlier complaints against Witters.
At the time, district officials assuaged angry parents by telling them Witters had no earlier reports of sexual abuse. New information obtained by this newspaper make clear it was a lie.
In 1994, a female student wrote a letter describing in detail sexual abuse at the hands of Witters dating back four years earlier; district internal documents show Walters, Simonin and Cooley all knew about the letter but no one reported it to police. In fact, Ring said, the girl called the school office a week after sending the letter to make sure Walters received it and was told he was "busy."
Further reports of sexual abuse in 1995 were also ignored.
State law requires school employees to immediately report any suspicions of child abuse to authorities.
After Witters' death, the school district stonewalled Moraga police. It reached a point where the then-chief of police personally appeared on campus to force them to comply, Ring said.
In the immediate wake of the scandal, school officials never explained the lapses, instead telling parents in a letter they were making "minor revisions" to policies and procedures on sexual harassment, processing citizens' complaints, district office records and personnel files.
But documents newly obtained by this newspaper show the school board took some action, secretly reprimanding all three administrators about seven months after Witters' suicide.
Walters' letter stressed he failed his "legal duty to report all reasonable suspicion of child abuse to the police."
Walters was the only one to respond to his reprimand, writing a letter that acknowledged even more employees knew of the original sex abuse allegations in 1994.
"Upon receipt of the letter received in June 1994, I made the superintendent aware of the content and followed his directions to follow-up with Mr. Witters," he wrote. "Three of the Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School staff members were aware of my conversations with the superintendent. Thus, I did feel that I had reported the incident to my superior."
Despite the reprimands, all three kept their jobs and Walters was given a two-year contract through which his salary nearly doubled from $36,000 to $63,000 per year.
All three left the district, but Walters returned to serve as principal at an elementary school. He announced his resignation in March 2012, days after this newspaper was told it would receive internal district documents on the case.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.