In settling a sex abuse lawsuit filed in February, the Anaheim Union High School District has agreed to pay $7.9 million to five former John F. Kennedy High School girls water polo athletes. The suit alleged that the district concealed complaints of sexual abuse, molestation and harassment against a former coach from parents, students, and law enforcement.
Joshua Owens, who coached water polo and swim at Kennedy High School in La Palma, pleaded guilty last year to committing sex crimes against three underage girls between 2014 and 2016.
The Register first reported on the settlement won by Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, a powerhouse Irvine firm that successfully represented victims of former Olympics women’s gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, a case that ended in a $500 million settlement with Michigan State University.
“In agreeing to this settlement, the district made a prudent fiscal decision to end what would have been a costly, protracted public legal battle with the plaintiff’s attorneys,” reads an AUHSD statement provided to the Weekly. “We appreciate that this settlement agreement can bring closure to this unfortunate incident for both the school district and the victims.”
Earlier this year, attorneys named AUHSD, Kennedy High Principal Russell Earnest, Athletic Director David Jankowski, Co-Athletic Director Dean Wang, former water polo coach Eric Pierce, teacher Ian Sabala and Owens in the complaint. When it came to legally reporting allegations that surfaced against Owens to law enforcement or Child Protective Services, school administrators failed abysmally.
In 2015, Jankowski cleared Owens within 15 to 20 minutes of a sham investigation while never bothering to interview an alleged victim or a whistleblower who alerted Sabala about sex abuse claims.
That allowed Owens to continue abusing and harassing young girls until assistant coach Nicolas Banales finally contacted CPS in 2016. Banales approached a student after having heard an allegation about her regarding Owens; she confirmed it. The incident happened in Buena Park and the city’s police department soon became involved in the criminal investigation.
“The size of this settlement testifies to the serious nature of the abuse and the failure of the district to prevent it,” attorney Morgan Stewart told Register reporter Scott Reid. “Child sex abuse at Anaheim Unified High School District began as a serious problem and is becoming a full-blown scandal.”
By all standards, it’s a scandal but not many heads are rolling. Owens received a six-month sentence for one count each of oral copulation and sexual penetration of a victim under 16 as well as six counts of child annoyance. The district fired Pierce in 2017. That same year, Earnest became an assistant principal at Duarte High School after Superintendent Michael Matsuda wrote a letter of recommendation for him.
But other than that, key players in the suit remain district employees. Despite channeling their inner-Paterno, Jankowski and Wang remain athletic directors at Kennedy. Sabala remains a teacher at the school despite the fact that he only alerted Earnest, Wang and Jankowski about an allegation, not law enforcement. The Register also reported that Jack Jensen, another Kennedy administrator aware of the Owens allegations, is now principal of Loara High School in Anaheim.
“In today’s environment, to have five administrators and staff of AUHSD ignore their obligations as reporters under law is abhorrent,” Stewart said back in February in a statement from his firm. “To have AUHSD then continue to employ Jankowski, Wang and Sabala, despite these failures to report, only reinforces that AUHSD tolerates the abuse of its students and rewards those who fail to report.”
In releasing a statement in response to the settlement, the AUHSD disagrees with Stewart’s sentiments.
“It is important to note that language in this settlement agreement, signed by the plaintiffs, specifically states that in reaching this settlement there is no admission of guilt or wrong doing by the school district or its employees,” it reads. “The plaintiff’s lawyer knows that we cannot discuss any disciplinary actions that may or may not have been taken against any AUHSD employee connected to this case. We have a statutory and legal obligation to maintain the confidentiality of employee disciplinary records.”
The district adds that appropriate action has been taken under personnel polices and that student safety remains a top priority.
Updated with statements from AUHSD
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!