Kennewick school officials wanted accused teacher pulled earlier from classes

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldApril 26, 2014 

About three months before a Kennewick teacher and coach was arrested for sex crimes, school officials wanted him pulled from the classroom.

But William Pickerel continued substitute teaching during fall 2007 because police did not want him alerted to their investigation.

Now the Kennewick School District is facing a possible lawsuit by victims who claim the district failed to protect them for many of the 37 years he taught in Kennewick.

District officials told parents, students and staff after Pickerel's arrest that they were shocked to learn of the allegations against the Kennewick High School teacher and coach arrested for sex crimes against minors.

They also said they had no record of complaints against him.

A Herald review of more than 1,000 pages of public documents indicate one anonymous tipster told police that complaints about Pickerel were ignored by school officials.

Another Kennewick school administrator acknowledged that school officials approached Pickerel with concerns about his out-of-town trips with boys that were known by school officials but not sanctioned.

Pickerel eventually pleaded guilty and served 51/2 years in prison for molesting five Tri-City boys on trips to King County.

Eight former students have filed claims totaling $40 million against the school district saying public records and other evidence show the district failed to properly supervise Pickerel and protect them and other students.

Attorney Jeff Kreutz of Tamaki Law in Kennewick said his clients "strongly believe that (administrators) knew or should have known" about Pickerel's abuse of students.

A November 2007 internal district memo indicates authorities first contacted district officials in late June 2007 about their investigation of Pickerel.

At least three times, school officials told investigators they wanted to remove Pickerel from the district's substitute list, including one time when the sister of a victim had Pickerel as a substitute and told her mother.

Each time, authorities requested the district allow Pickerel to keep subbing.

"Throughout the conversations with (Kennewick police Detective Wes Gardner), I expressed the need to take Mr. Pickerel off the substitute list before school started," wrote Assistant Superintendent Beverly Johnson-Torelli in a memo. "He asked the Kennewick School District to avoid doing that since it would make Pickerel aware that there was a criminal investigation under way."

The memo was among public documents released by the district and state education officials. They include Pickerel's employment records, communications between district and state officials and redacted police reports and interviews.

Pickerel was eventually arrested at his home in mid-October 2007. He told investigators that he was scheduled to take a trip with three boys that same day and had a sexual encounter with one of his victims, by then an adult, a month earlier.

Pickerel confessed to abusing numerous boys in the almost three decades before his arrest. Prosecutors said more charges weren't filed because either the boys weren't identified or the statute of limitations had expired.

Because of pending litigation, the Kennewick School District declined to talk about what measures were taken to monitor Pickerel during the time school officials were aware he was under investigation.

Two internal district documents labeled "talking points" indicate the district was prepared to answer questions when the public learned Pickerel was under investigation.

"Why didn't we see it coming? A lot of people are probably asking themselves that question," read a "talking points" memo. "Mr. Pickerel had an outstanding reputation in the district, many students and staff came in contact with him, in his 34 years of service. During his tenure he had an exemplary service record and the current administration has no knowledge of allegations or complaints of misconduct."

That information was not included in a letter sent to district parents after Pickerel's arrest, nor was it shared in a districtwide email to teachers and staff.

Now 78, Pickerel is living in Seattle as a Level 3 sex offender.

He is on probation until February 2020 and must comply with various conditions, including no contact with his victims or other children, and no pornography, guns or alcohol. He also must check in with his supervisor at least twice a month and get permission to travel outside of King County.

"His conditions are pretty typical for someone of his level," said Norah West, interim communications chief for the state Department of Corrections.

Emails to state education officials and internal district memos portray the district as having no reason to suspect Pickerel was behaving inappropriately before being alerted by police.

However, an unnamed person who said he or she was a Kennewick High teacher at the time Pickerel was arrested called the Tri-Cities Crime Stoppers hotline within a week of the arrest, claiming Pickerel's behavior had been suspicious.

"The caller states they shared the (district's email about the arrest) with a former Kennewick school teacher and the immediate reaction of that former teacher was, 'It's about time,' " the report said. "The caller states they encouraged the former teacher to call with information (about Pickerel) but the former teacher was very reluctant as nothing had ever been done previously."

The caller said many complaints about Pickerel, mostly connected with his time as a wrestling coach, were allegedly made to a former Kennewick High principal, but the issue was never addressed.

Another administrator told Seattle police he was aware of the students trips.

"There was a comment at one time about Pickerel staying in the hotels with the boys, and he thought that (school officials) approached Pickerel about that, which made Pickerel change that practice," the Seattle police report read.

State law and district policy at the time of Pickerel's arrest required that school employees report any suspected cases of sexual abuse.

"Personnel need not verify that a child has, in fact, been abused or neglected," the district policy said. "Any conditions or information that may reasonably be related to abuse or neglect should be reported."

Robyn Chastain, spokeswoman for the Kennewick School District, said in an email that district employees are expected to follow state law, and those who don't could face discipline ranging from a warning to termination to criminal charges.

Pickerel was well-known and well-liked, and his stature within the district might have contributed to his ability to pursue students or discouraged victims from speaking out, law enforcement officials reported in their investigation.

He started his career at what was Park Junior High School in 1960 before moving to Kennewick High to teach history and geography until he retired in 1998. He served as a wrestling coach during much of his teaching career.

District records show two letters of commendation to Pickerel for his work with students.

An annex building at Kennewick High was named for him in 1998, though the name "Pickerel Hall" was covered up after his arrest and eventually removed.

"(Victims) often mentioned to me the building at their school that was named in his honor, as to reinforce to me how famous (Pickerel) was," Seattle police Detective M.S. Ditusa said in a report.

Most victims who accompanied him on his out-of-town trips said they told no one about what had happened to them.

Those who talked to other students said the reaction was either incredulity or, in some cases, blase acceptance.

"(Victim) stated that 'It's because he does all this stuff. We all laughed at it because everyone has their price,'" a Seattle police report said. "(Victim) stated that people 'put up with it.' His friends knew about it and they weren't shocked."

The five former students who filed claims were Kennewick High students from the mid-1980s to 2005.

Three victims claim Pickerel sexually assaulted and molested them at the school, with one claiming the abuse happened during wrestling practice.

Seven said they were abused during out-of-town trips to sporting events that Pickerel took several times a year with boys. Two victims said they were abused at Pickerel's Kennewick home.

Pickerel's reputation likely contributed to the educator being able to abuse children as long as he did, Kreutz said told the Herald.

"I think it's turning a blind eye to a beloved teacher," he said.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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