Lawsuit claims California school district failed to protect students from predatory teacher

Lawsuit claims California school district failed to protect students from predatory teacher

A Riverside County school district censured for violating federal law and failing to protect students from sexual misconduct now faces a lawsuit alleging district officials neglected to prevent a former teacher from molesting two students and report him to police.

Kelly Reck (Courtesy photo) 

The lawsuit, filed last month in Riverside County Superior Court against the Val Verde Unified School District in Perris and former Citrus Hill High School teacher and tennis coach Kelly Carlton Reck, alleges Reck groomed two former students and molested them in 2021.

District administrators, according to the lawsuit, failed to protect the students and take appropriate action against Reck, despite the students’ complaints to administrators.

“Despite clear and unrebutted statements of sexual abuse by Reck dating back to at least 2015, (Val Verde Unified) turned a blind eye and deliberately withheld reporting Reck or his conduct to law enforcement,” the lawsuit alleges. “By the time any meaningful action was taken, at least nine underaged VVUSD students were sexually assaulted and molested by Reck. Plaintiffs were two of those students.”

Val Verde Unified Superintendent Michael McCormick and the district’s risk management director, Daniel Whitfield, did not respond to requests for comment. All five members of Val Verde’s Board of Education also did not respond to requests for comment. The district operates 21 schools in Perris and Moreno Valley.

Criminal case

Reck, 62, of Riverside was charged by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office with nine misdemeanor counts of child molestation involving nine student victims on Feb. 23, 2022.

A year later, on Feb. 24, 2023, Reck pleaded guilty to three of the nine counts and was sentenced to one year of probation and 90 days in a work-release program. He also was ordered to register as a sex offender and enroll in a state-certified sexual offender management program, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

Reck’s teaching credential was subsequently revoked, and he now is listed on the Megan’s Law database of registered sex offenders.

Reck did not respond to repeated telephone calls and emails seeking comment.

Both plaintiffs in the lawsuit, now 19, are among the three Reck was convicted of molesting. They allege Reck’s untoward conduct with them began at the beginning of their senior years in August 2021.

The victims, identified in the lawsuit as “Jane Doe 7100” and “Jane Doe 7099,” are not being identified because they are the victims of sexual abuse.

Almost immediately after Jane Doe 7100 began Reck’s advanced placement history class, the lawsuit alleges, the teacher began paying special attention to her, attempting to forge a “special relationship.” Reck, according to the suit, complimented the victim on her appearance and would routinely touch her hands, wrists, and shoulders, run his fingers through her hair, and make sexually explicit remarks to her in front of the entire classroom.

“Without any legitimate reason to do so, Reck would routinely lift and hug Jane Doe 7100 against her will. He would wrap his arms around her, not allowing her to go free,” the lawsuit alleges.

In November 2021, according to the lawsuit, Reck called the victim to his desk and initiated physical contact with her in front of the class.

“The more it went on, that’s when I knew something was off and not right,” the victim said in a telephone interview.

Reck engaged in similar conduct with Jane Doe 7099, who was enrolled in his government class. He lavished her with attention, and then began touching her, the lawsuit alleges.

“At first, Reck would lightly engage in physical contact with plaintiff, finding any reason to touch and caress plaintiff’s shoulders, arms and hands,” according to the lawsuit.

The suit cites an incident on Nov. 12, 2021, when the girl was seated at the back of Reck’s class and he “kneeled to her side and proceeded to sexually assault her.” No details were provided about what that alleged assault entailed.

In a telephone interview, the victim said she was reluctant to come forward about what happened to her, and, when she did, she found it difficult to disclose what had happened to school administrators and police.

“It was hard to speak and tell somebody. I was embarrassed and thought that I would be judged or that somebody wouldn’t believe me,” she said.

Reck reported

Both plaintiffs reported what happened to them to school employees at the time, according to the lawsuit.

Jane Doe 7100 reported Reck to a teacher at the school in November 2021, and followed up with the teacher again when no action was taken. The teacher, according to the lawsuit, sympathized with the victim and apologized for not taking action.

When Jane Doe 7099 reported Reck to a school counselor the same month, she was directed to talk to Assistant Principal Ruby Navarro, who investigated and turned up eight additional alleged victims, according to the lawsuit.

Reck, the lawsuit states, was placed on administrative leave while the district further investigated the allegations.

Administrative investigation

Although district administrators and board members have refused to discuss how the Reck case was investigated, some records provided by the district shed some light.

According to the documents, administrators gathered statements from 11 witnesses from Nov. 17 through Nov. 19, 2021. Seven reported Reck had inappropriately touched them or others and made inappropriate comments to other students. Four others, however, said they saw no inappropriate or unusual conduct by Reck.

According to the lawsuit, Reck was allowed to return to teaching on Dec. 6, 2021, “without any (further) disciplinary actions, supervision, or training.”

Jane Doe 7100 said when Reck returned to campus, she and other students who reported him were allowed to either transfer out of his class or get a hall pass to step out if they felt they needed to.

“It made me feel disregarded and unsafe,” she said in the interview. “I felt anger in a sense, and frustration. I felt unprotected by the people who were supposed to protect me.”

After a week, she said, she requested to be transferred to another class.

Police investigation

The district’s internal investigation triggered the criminal probe that culminated with charges against Reck, his subsequent termination, conviction and the revocation of his teaching credentials.

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It was learned during the police investigation that Val Verde’s then-assistant superintendent of human resources, Juan Cabral, instructed Navarro, the assistant principal, not to report the allegations against Reck to police, which the lawsuit described as a “clear contravention” to the school district’s mandatory reporting obligations.

In an email Val Verde Unified police Officer Serene Cottini-Guillot sent to Police Chief Mark Clark in July 2022, she noted that Navarro wasn’t the only school administrator that Cabral instructed not to report Reck to police. He gave the same directive to then-school Principal Sarah Allen, according to the email obtained by the Southern California News Group.

In her email, Guillot, who led the criminal investigation into Reck, told Clark she spoke to Allen shortly after speaking to Navarro.

“I asked her why I am just now hearing about the allegations, and she told me that Juan Cabral told her not to go to law enforcement and he would handle it and inform Chief Clark,” Guillot said in her email.

Cabral is now superintendent of the Redlands Unified School District, which was forced to grapple with its own teacher sex abuse and cover-up quagmire during an investigation by the Southern California News Group that began in 2018, which led to new policies and other reforms at the district, which has paid out more than $45 million in the last decade to settle sex abuse lawsuits filed by former students.

Cabral did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment.

In June 2023, the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights, in a 23-page letter to Superintendent McCormick following an eight-year investigation, informed the district it had violated federal law nine times for failing to protect against sexual harassment and discrimination.

The district signed an agreement pledging to follow federal laws after investigators reviewed 41 reports of sexually explicit comments, name-calling and unwanted sexual touching among students. Three incidents involved high school employees, but the rest were alleged to have been committed by students, according to the letter from Zachary Pelchat of the Office of Civil Rights.