Kennewick officials didn’t ask enough questions about teacher’s sleepover trips, argues attorney

Kennewick School District office
Kennewick School District office Herald file

It was well-known at Kennewick High School that William “Bill” Pickerel took students on out-of-town trips.

And at least some staffers knew the teacher was sharing a bed with students on those trips, attorney Jeff Kreutz told a Benton County jury on Wednesday.

Yet, the Kennewick School District didn’t ask enough questions or stop Pickerel, who eventually admitted to abusing boys on some of the trips, Kreutz said.

The district’s top responsibility is to protect its students and it clearly failed, Kreutz told the jury.

Fifteen former students have sued the district, saying school officials knew or should have known that Pickerel was a danger and that it failed to protect them.

This trial involves four of the former Kennewick High students, who Kreutz said should be awarded $1 million each.

But a school district attorney argued that Pickerel was a beloved and revered staffer who’d built up trust over the years.

He wasn’t a typical abuser — a leading child abuse expert even testified that she wouldn’t have pegged him as a molester, said attorney Michael McFarland.

Pickerel was able to fool his colleagues and supervisors, he argued.

William B. Pickerel Herald file

The civil case is now in the jury’s hands to decide whether the district should be found liable and, if so, how much should be awarded for their trauma.

Pickerel’s abuse caused lasting damage — the victims have dealt with everything from addiction and suicidal thoughts to feelings of guilt and shame, Kreutz said.

The signs of Pickerel’s abuse were there, Kreutz argued. He pointed, as one example, to a phone call made in the ‘90s by a parent concerned about sleeping arrangements on the overnight trips.

The mother called Kennewick High’s principal and said her son had slept in the same bed as Pickerel, Kreutz said.

The principal summoned Pickerel to her office, but he wasn’t responsive and the matter went no further, Kreutz said.

“(The principal) didn’t say, ‘Bill, get back here. You’re sleeping in a hotel room bed with a student — with one of our students. Our job is to protect the students.’ She didn’t say that,” Kreutz argued.

She didn’t talk to other teens or teachers, put Pickerel on probation or demand he stop the trips, Kreutz said. “She didn’t ask any questions. She didn’t do anything,” the attorney said.

Is that how you ensure the safety of your students? By not asking questions? By not following up?

Jeff Kreutz, attorney for former students

School administrators also talked with Pickerel a different time about the sleeping arrangements, but, again, nothing happened, Kreutz said.

“Is that how you ensure the safety of your students? By not asking questions? By not following up?” Kreutz said.

McFarland said district officials weren’t avoiding or ignoring — they didn’t know Pickerel was an abuser. And it isn’t reasonable to expect them to have known.

Sherryll Kraizer, an expert in child abuse, testified that Pickerel was an atypical predator who didn’t groom his victims in the usual way, McFarland said.

“She told you very clearly that she had never seen, in her 40 years, a perpetrator like Mr. Pickerel,” McFarland said, adding that the teacher “went (decades) without anyone catching him. That’s how good he was.”

Kraizer testified that if she’d been working at Kennewick High at the same time as Pickerel, she wouldn’t have identified him as an abuser, the attorney said.

He went (decades) without anyone catching him. That’s how good he was.

Michael McFarland, school district attorney

When it came to the ‘90s phone call, the principal asked if it was a matter for police, McFarland said. The parent said she just wanted the principal to speak with Pickerel.

Even if the principal had launched an investigation, victims weren’t speaking up and staffers didn’t know of any abuse, McFarland said.

The four men shouldn’t have been abused, but they didn’t report any harm until Tamaki Law — Kreutz’s firm — sought victims for a lawsuit, he said.

The 15 cases were split up into four separate trials. The first ended in a settlement last year; the details of what the men were paid haven’t been made public. Two more trials are planned, but haven’t been scheduled.

Pickerel started working in Kennewick schools in 1960. He retired in 1998, but continued substitute teaching. He spent the bulk of his time in the district at Kennewick High.

He was arrested in 2007 and pleaded guilty the following year to abusing five Tri-City boys on overnight trips to the Seattle area. He also admitted to molesting other boys over the years.

Now 82, he served a little more than half of his 10-year sentence, released in 2014 on good behavior. He lives in Seattle and is registered as a Level III sex offender. He is not a party in the civil lawsuit.

Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529, @SaraTCHerald