Columbia Elementary School’s insurer has reached a tentative $100,000 settlement with the victim of sex crimes perpetrated by a former Columbia after-school program aide.
The settlement comes more than a year and a half after Brennan Pendley — son of Columbia Union School District Superintendent John Pendley — pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with the victim. She was in eighth grade at the time of the crimes.
Several hours of mediated discussion took place Dec. 14 between representatives for Columbia Union School District’s insurer, the district’s attorney, and Brad Young, the Sonora-based lawyer for the victim.
Jim Cherry, the victim’s court-appointed guardian in legal matters, was also present during mediation. The resulting settlement must clear a court review because it involves a minor, Young said.
Young served a tort claim on the victim’s behalf in fall 2011, later expanding it. It alleged that she suffered “emotional and psychological injuries” from sexual abuse by Brennan Pendley and subsequent mistreatment by several school staff members.
Columbia employees named in the claim are Brennan Pendley, eighth-grade teacher Daniel Doane, school counselor Tina Cruz, former principal Don Foster and John Pendley himself.
The $100,000 in damages will settle the tort claim against the school district and all employees except Brennan Pendley, Young said.
Brennan Pendley, now 25, will likely be the subject of a separate lawsuit, according to Young.
Columbia Elementary’s Board of Trustees met with its Sacramento-based lawyer, Alesa Schachter, for about three hours Tuesday to discuss the claim.
John Pendley and school board President Laura Phelan refused to answer questions about the tentative settlement Tuesday.
Schachter said they weren’t required to do so by California’s Ralph M. Brown Act, since the settlement still requires court approval. She also said the district is not admitting wrongdoing.
“The District strongly disputes any liability regarding this claim,” Schachter wrote in an email to The Union Democrat.
The circumstances leading to the tentative settlement have been the subject of heated discussion at Columbia Elementary board meetings for roughly a year and a half.
According to court testimony from detectives, Brennan Pendley admitted to exchanging about 400 text messages with the eighth-grade victim in spring 2010. Some were sexually graphic.
Brennan Pendley pleaded guilty in June 2011 to two felony counts of having sex with a minor, part of a plea deal with the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office. He also pleaded guilty to sending harmful matter to a minor.
The tort claim filed by Young alleged that after a criminal investigation began in May 2010, the victim was “defamed” by Doane, who “described (her) as a liar” and accused her of “fabricating” stories.
Doane “wrongfully prevented (the victim) from going to school and class events with other students,” the claim stated.
It went on to allege that “(t)his wrongful conduct was intentional and it inflicted severe emotional distress on (the victim).”
Cruz allegedly discussed the victim’s situation with others — causing the girl to suffer from “extreme mental and emotional anxiety and distress.”
The claim listed Foster as a participant in John Pendley’s “school investigation” and alleged he had joined the elder Pendley in violating the victim’s privacy.
Also mentioned was John Pendley’s request that several school staffers write letters to the judge on his son’s case. The handful of letters, urging leniency, portray the girl as a perpetrator rather than a victim.
The last paragraph of the tort claim concluded the adults named had all failed to protect the girl from each other’s misconduct.
If the tort claim were not settled out of court, a lawsuit would have followed, Young said.
He added that he felt the tentative settlement was a more favorable outcome.
“From our point of view, five years of acrimonious litigation was definitely not in this young girl’s best interest,” he said.
Young said the settlement involved debate about whether Brennan Pendley’s crimes fell within or outside the scope of his employment.
He revised the Columbia Elementary tort claim this spring after the California Supreme Court ruled on a 2010 case involving a school district, “C.A. v. William S. Hart Union High School District.”
In the case, a student filed a complaint against the district after he was allegedly harassed and molested by his school’s lead guidance counselor.
The California Supreme Court’s ruling established that school districts can be held “vicariously liable” for negligent hiring, training and supervision of employees who harm students.
As revised in March 2012, the Columbia Elementary tort claim alleged that John Pendley “negligently and improperly arranged for the District to hire his son … to work as an After School Program Assistant.”
Brennan Pendley was “specifically unqualified” for the job and hired instead of a qualified candidate, the claim stated.
It further alleged that John Pendley “knew or should have known of Brennan Pendley’s propensity and disposition to engage in improper acts such as those committed.”
The settlement requires a court hearing that has not yet been scheduled, according to Schachter.
A petition must be filed with the court first.
Damages up to $25,000 will be paid by the Tuolumne Joint Power Authority. The agency is a “self-funded” insurer that covers all school districts in Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador and Alpine counties.
School districts pay into the Tuolumne Joint Power Authority according to a number of factors, including size and property value.
After the first $25,000 of the settlement, liability will transfer to a larger insurer. The board of the Tuolumne Joint Power Authority will meet regarding the claim on Feb. 7, according to Schachter.
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