Crime - Sacto 911

Parents of molested students file lawsuit against Elk Grove Unified

Former Prairie Elementary School teacher’s aide Eric Ernest Echols was sentenced to 11 years in state prison Dec. 21 after pleading no contest to sexually abusing seven students at the school.
Former Prairie Elementary School teacher’s aide Eric Ernest Echols was sentenced to 11 years in state prison Dec. 21 after pleading no contest to sexually abusing seven students at the school. Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department

The parents of three children victimized by Eric Ernest Echols when he worked as a teachers aide at Prairie Elementary School are suing Echols, Elk Grove Unified and five employees at the school.

Echols, 30, was sentenced to 11 years in state prison last month for molesting seven girls at the Sacramento school between June 1, 2015, and July 24, 2016. He pleaded no contest in Sacramento Superior Court to seven counts, including six felonies, for lewd and lascivious acts against children younger than 14.

He will have to register as a sex offender upon his release from prison.

The 15-page civil lawsuit, filed Jan. 4, says the young victims were allowed to be alone with Echols and were repeatedly abused. The girls were regularly seen sitting on Echols’ lap receiving bear hugs from the teachers’ aide, while in the classroom teacher’s presence, the suit states.

“Sexual predators go where they can get access to our children,” said Stephen Estey, the attorney for the parents on Monday. Though rules are in place to protect children in California’s schools, “the problem is (educators) don’t execute them. They don’t want to believe what they’re seeing is a red flag.”

Elk Grove Unified officials would not comment for this story, saying the district does not comment on pending litigation.

During criminal court proceedings, Sacramento County prosecutors alleged Echols touched the genitalia of some of his victims under their clothing, including one who he made to sit on his lap while playing a board game.

Echols was 29 in September 2016 when he was arrested after a Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department investigation into alleged inappropriate contact with children ages 7 and 8 at the elementary school in the Valley Hi neighborhood. The school district put him on paid administrative leave.

Paraeducators like Echols are not certified school personnel and, as such, must have a certified person with them at all times, Estey said. Instead, Echols was allowed to be alone with multiple children, he said.

The lawsuit also alleges that an unnamed yard supervisor failed to file a report with anyone after students collectively and individually said Echols had touched them inappropriately. The inaction resulted in Echols remaining on campus to sexually assault children, according to the complaint.

Echols, Prairie Elementary School principal Robin Riley, vice principal Laura Anderson, teacher Lesley McKillop, in whose class much of the abuse occurred, and Mike Smith, who supervised the after-school program at Prairie, were named individually in the complaint.

The suit alleges that Elk Grove Unified School District and its employees were negligent because they failed to exercise ordinary care to protect plaintiffs from being molested and missed warning signs that children were being abused.

The complaint accuses Echols of negligence and battery.

The lawsuit claims that the victims were damaged physically and mentally, requiring medical care and other expenses. It says that the full extent of their injuries are unknown and will result in some permanent disability.

The lawsuit isn’t asking for a specific amount, but seeks medical, attorney costs and damages from the defendants.

Parents are frustrated, Estey said.

“They trust that (schools) will stand in their shoes when they’re not there and take that same level of supervision. That the school betrayed their trust –that’s a big deal for them.”

Estey said his next step is to gather more information, seek out records and talk to others at Prairie Elementary. He plans to investigate why Elk Grove Unified officials waited until September 2016 to notify Prairie parents that Echols was placed on paid administrative leave for his criminal conduct.

“That’s two months. The district says safety is our top priority. If it is, you wouldn’t wait two months to tell parents.”

He anticipates setting a trial date by year’s end.

Elk Grove Unified, the area’s largest school district with 63,000 students, had seven employees or volunteers arrested on suspicion of inappropriate conduct or sexual acts against children since March 2016.

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith