MORAGA -- In the days after three girls came forward alleging extensive sexual abuse by a science teacher, Moraga school officials diligently worked to keep the instructor's troubled past a secret from the girls' inquisitive parents, according to lawsuits recently filed by three victims.
The district promoted employees who failed in at least seven instances in their legal duty to report such abuse allegations involving Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School teacher Daniel Witters, attorneys said. District officials publicly lied to parents and the community when they said there had been no previous abuse complaints, the suits contend. And the district paid for the girls' therapy in 1996 after Witters committed suicide shortly after being placed on administrative leave.
"The school district intentionally engaged in a detailed plan to cover the whole thing up," said David Ring, an attorney representing "Jane Does" 1 and 2. "They were all in on it."
Details of the cover-up surfaced in two lawsuits filed by three Jane Does, one on Tuesday and the other Jan. 17, claiming negligence, fraud and other charges perpetrated by the Moraga School District, retired Superintendent John Cooley, retired Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School Principal Bill Walters and retired assistant principal Paul Simonin. The trio had filed claims last year totaling $40 million -- claims denied by the district after mediation efforts failed.
Another person who has accused Witter of abuse, Kristen Cunnane, also sued last year. Cunnane's former physical education teacher Julie Correa, who worked alongside Witters, was convicted of sexual abuse charges for assaulting Cunnane, now a Cal swim coach, over several years.
Bruce Burns, the current Moraga superintendent, said the district, along with its insurers, participated earlier this month in a two-day mediation session involving all four girls' cases but that those discussions are confidential.
"I can say that discussions between our district and the victims in these cases are continuing, and they will include the participation of the retired judge who conducted the mediation," he said. "We're committed to continuing the dialogue and to finding a resolution that is agreeable to everyone involved.
"I want to say again that our district is deeply sorry for the suffering caused by two of our former teachers. We continue to hope for a resolution to these cases that will help the victims find healing for the pain they've suffered."
Witters was hired by the district in 1989 and started abusing students the next year, according to a 1994 letter from an unknown victim, who is not one of the Jane Does. That girl's letter was ignored by then-Joaquin Moraga Principal Walters, as were other memos and letters from parents and students, the suit asserts
By summer 1994, Witters began fondling Jane Doe No. 1, then 14 years old, and having her orally copulate him, according to the lawsuit. She graduated the next school year to high school but was still molested by Witters -- often in the supply room of his classroom -- through her sophomore year, the suit says.
By spring 1996, Witters was fondling Jane Doe No. 2 and having her orally copulate him, according to the lawsuit. Jane Does 1 and 2 were abused more than 50 times each, Ring said. The following school year, Witters allegedly began molesting Jane Doe No. 3 as well.
In mid-November 1996, Jane Doe No. 3 came forward to discuss her sexual abuse allegations with then-assistant Principal Elaine Frank. Five more girls came forward in the following days, and district officials finally went to police.
After Witters' suicide, Jane Doe No. 3 was blamed for his death and ostracized by faculty and students, her lawsuit claimed. Jane Doe No. 2 tried to kill herself twice, in 1996 and 1997, Ring said.
In the weeks following Witters' death, school officials told parents and media there had been no previous issues with the teacher. A private meeting was held for the three Jane Does and other girls who came forward, assuring them that looking further into the matter would do no good, the attorneys said.
The attorneys allege the district promoted Walters and Simonin despite knowing about their missteps, with Walters getting a two-year contract and doubling his salary from $36,000 to $63,000 the year after Witters' death. He eventually was promoted to principal at Los Perales, retiring days after the district agreed to release the explosive documents to the Contra Costa Times that led to a May 2012 investigative story.
"They promoted him because they wanted everyone in the community to believe Walters had done his job and that there was nothing to be suspicious of," Ring said. "And another reason to do it, it keeps Walters happy and keeps them in their camp so they will not tell anyone."
The district also coordinated group therapy sessions for the girls, including paying for outside treatment, the attorneys said.
"I think the motivation was to appease parents to make them think the school district was doing the right thing and to ensure parents were not digging any deeper to see if the district did anything wrong," Ring said.
For more than a decade, all three Jane Does thought they were Witters' only victims, the attorneys said, until they read the Contra Costa Times story.
Now adults, Jane Doe No. 1 and Jane Doe No. 2 have "relapsed," Ring said. Jane Doe No. 3 has also struggled, said her attorney, Judith Yedidsion.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.