Fourteen former Kennewick High School students sued the Kennewick School District on Thursday for failing to protect them from a former teacher and coach they say molested them.
The victims, only identified as John Does, filed the lawsuit in Benton County Superior Court.
All of the victims filed claims totaling $70 million against the district earlier this year, claiming sexual abuse by William Pickerel, who was convicted in 2008 of sex crimes against young boys.
The abuse included "numerous incidents of fondling, inappropriate touching and sodomy," the lawsuit said.
District officials said in a release they are committed to the safety as well as the education of all its students and denied any wrongdoing because the alleged abuse happened off-campus and during nonschool sponsored events.
"Although extremely sympathetic to the purported victims of these unthinkable acts, the Kennewick School District will vigorously defend against all allegations that it is liable for the alleged acts of the perpetrator of those crimes," the release said.
The district referred all questions to a Spokane-based attorney hired by the district's insurance company.
Attorneys Jeff Kreutz and Megan Ngaruiya of Kennewick-based Tamaki Law said it's clear the district should have known that Pickerel was a threat and that his standing in the district contributed to the suffering of numerous young men.
"(The victims) felt like nobody would give their stories credence because (the district) put Pickerel on a pedestal," Kreutz told the Herald.
Half the victims said Pickerel sexually assaulted them during or after wrestling practice on school property, and many said Pickerel abused them on out-of-town trips they'd take with him at the hotel rooms they shared.
Most of the victims named in the suit were Kennewick High students in the 1990s and 2000s, but a few attended the school in the early '80s.
Their ages range from 23 to 47. Most still live in the state, while a few live in Texas, Nevada and California. One serves in the military.
A King County jury convicted Pickerel, now 78, of molesting five Tri-City students that he took on sports outings to Seattle.
He was released from prison earlier this year for good behavior after serving 5 1/2 years of a 10-year sentence and is living in Seattle as a registered Level 3 sex offender.
Pickerel taught and coached wrestling in Kennewick schools for 37 years, mostly at Kennewick High, and the school's annex was named after him until he was convicted.
Pickerel admitted to police he molested numerous boys during the years but more charges weren't filed because either the boys weren't identified or the statute of limitations expired, prosecutors said.
Police approached district administrators in 2007 and said they were investigating Pickerel, then working as a substitute teacher. The district sought to immediately remove Pickerel, but detectives didn't want anyone to alert him to the investigation. Authorities arrested him a few months later at his home in mid-October 2007.
Kreutz and Ngaruiya said they want to work with the district to protect the victims' identities if the lawsuit goes to a trial.
Even if the district doesn't agree to shield the victims' names, attorneys could ask a judge to seal them and provide protections sometimes used in other sex abuse cases, such as allowing them to testify in a closed courtroom, Kreutz said.
The district has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit, and Kreutz and Ngaruiya said the case could be in court in a year, potentially with more than the current victims.
"I do believe as the word gets out there, more victims will stand up for themselves," Ngaruiya said.
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