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Sacramento jurors awarded more than $1 million Wednesday to the families of three Elk Grove Unified School District elementary school students who were molested by a campus volunteer three years ago.
The families said the district and their children’s Prairie Elementary School did not properly supervise volunteer reading aide Eric Ernest Echols, failed to report the abuse happening in the classroom where he volunteered and missed numerous red flags pointing to the illegal contact with the students, then ages 7 and 8.
The $1.135 million verdict before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Kevin Culhane came down just hours after Sacramento City Unified School District and the city of Sacramento agreed to a massive $12.5 million settlement with the family of a girl molested by an after-school aide at Mark Twain Elementary School. That was a decision attorneys called historic and that included sweeping changes to training and how adults interact with children at Sacramento city schools. Culhane also presided over the Sacramento City Unified case.
Echols was 29 when he sexually abused six students at Prairie Elementary School between July 2015 and June 2016, ultimately pleading no contest in October 2017 in Sacramento Superior Court to felony counts of lewd and lascivious acts against children under the age of 14. He was sentenced in December 2017 to 11 years in state prison and received a sentencing “strike” for his crimes.
Sacramento County prosecutors during Echols’ criminal proceedings said Echols touched girls’ genitalia under their clothing. At the just-concluded civil trial, attorneys alleged that Echols would touch the students under a classroom table while they sat, in an adjoining vestibule and while they sat on his lap during reading time.
Echols routinely placed children in his lap, gave them bear hugs and was often alone with children in the classroom, plaintiffs’ attorneys alleged in their filings.
“Such actions were ‘red flags’ or warning signs that Echols harbored sexual desires for the students and/or was receiving sexual gratification from those contacts,” plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote.
Parents of three of the girls filed a general negligence suit last year seeking damages for Echols’ attacks and Elk Grove Unified’s failure to stop them.
Jurors on Wednesday singled out Prairie Principal Robin Riley and a campus yard supervisor for negligence and failure to follow mandatory reporting guidelines, saying their inaction contributed to the attacks against Prairie students.
Riley and district officials angered Prairie parents in April 2017 after failing to notify them of a classroom volunteer’s off-campus arrest in December 2016 on suspicion of federal child pornography charges. The arrest happened just months after Echols was arrested in September 2016 on the molestation charges..
District officials at the time said parents were not notified because the alleged crime happened off school grounds and did not involve Prairie students..
In a statement Wednesday, district officials say they provide annual mandated reporter training including training on sexual predators “as part the district’s “ongoing commitment to protecting students.”
“They say training is enough” to spot sexual abuse, said plaintiffs’ co-counsel Mary Bajo following the verdict. “But clearly it’s not. A large part of what we see as wrong is that if you’re not looking for something, you can’t see it. If it’s happening that often, how can you not see?”
In the same statement released after the verdict, district superintendent Christopher R. Hoffman said the district’s focus has been “on the young women and families hurt by the actions of this individual. .... While we are confident that as a school district we did everything we could to prevent this individual’s acts, no young person should ever have their trust violated by an adult.”
The claims and conduct aired at trial follow a string of arrests, convictions and sentencings of Elk Grove Unified employees or volunteers since 2015 connected to inappropriate conduct or sexual acts against children in the area’s largest school district.
They include former Cosumnes Oaks High School geography teacher Monte Antonio Reed, scheduled to face trial this month in Sacramento Superior Court for allegedly having sex with a 15-year-old student who attended the school and allegedly molesting two other teens in 2016
Tyrice Daniels, 35, returns to a Sacramento courtroom later this month on allegations the campus supervisor engaged in inappropriate touching of a teenager off-campus. Daniels, who officials say worked at several district sites, is no longer employed by the district. Lucas Melville, 24, was a band volunteer for the Laguna Creek High School band when he was arrested in January on suspicion of sexual assault of a student younger than 16. His case is also wending its way through the Sacramento courts.