SANTA CRUZ — The Pajaro Valley Unified School District has reached a $3 million settlement with the family of a young girl who was molested by an Aptos Junior High School teacher.
Steven Sande pleaded guilty in 2011 to 19 felony crimes, including sexual abuse of a minor, child pornography and using a computer to facilitate the commission of crimes against a minor. The victim, who was 13 at the time, had been a student in his math class. Sande was sentenced to 17 years in state prison for his plea.
The girl’s parents filed a lawsuit in civil court against the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, Aptos Junior High School officials and Sande. In the suit, the plaintiffs alleged school officials were negligent and allowed Sande to continue teaching despite complaints about him from parents. Their attorneys argued that if the district had taken proper action previously, their daughter would not have been victimized.
The case was slated to go to trial late last year but ended up settling. The details took a couple of months to hammer out but were recently finalized, according to Brett McFadden, chief business officer for the school district.
“This was a tragic incident,” McFadden said. “We’re happy a settlement has been reached so that all parties can move forward.”
In their complaint, the plaintiffs stated that district and school officials had “the responsibility and mandatory duty to adequately and properly investigate, hire, train and supervise its teachers, and to protect its students from harm caused by unfit and dangerous individuals hired as teachers.”
Furthermore, the plaintiffs alleged that prior to and during the time period of fall 2009 to July 2010, when Sande was arrested, school and district officials had been made aware of other student and parent complaints regarding the conduct of Sande. In 2007, the suit alleged, a parent complained to principal Brian Saxton that Sande was having inappropriate phone conversations with their daughter.
“The parent met with Saxton and others and told them of her serious concern; yet, her complaints were disregarded,” according to the plaintiffs’ complaint. “The parent was told ‘Sande is our friend. He is a good man.’”
The suit also claimed other parents and students had complained about sexually suggestive remarks Sande allegedly made in the classroom as well as leering gestures. On another occasion, Sande allegedly sent a text message to a female student stating “I miss you.” The parent complained to the school.
In their response to the complaint, the defendants denied all of the allegations and denied any negligence on behalf of the district. In a response filed to the complaint, attorneys for the defense also suggested the plaintiffs may have been “careless and negligent in and about the matters referred to in said complaint.” In the response, the defendants also stated that school officials had performed all mandatory duties required of them with “reasonable diligence.”
The plaintiffs, who the Register-Pajaronian is not identifying to protect the victim’s identity, were represented by attorney David M. Ring of Los Angeles-based law firm, Taylor Ring.
“It’s an incredibly significant settlement,” said Ring. “It reflects the damage done to this victim and it reflects the district’s conduct in allowing Steve Sande to continue for so long.”
Ring said the district should have fired Sande years ago based on the complaints lodged against him.
“The district turned a blind eye,” he said. “Steve Sande never should have been teaching.”
In the settlement, the district does not admit or concede to any wrongdoing.
However, said Ring, “the amount of this settlement reflects the level of exposure the district faced if it had gone to trial.”
The settlement money will come from the district’s liability insurance policy, and will not have an operational effect, said McFadden.
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