A Benton County jury on Monday cleared the Kennewick School District of negligence in the alleged abuse of two former students by a once-revered teacher and coach who turned out to be a child molester.
But a mistrial was declared in allegations brought by two other former students when jurors couldn’t reach a decision.
“We are pleased that the jury has ruled in our favor with their decision regarding two of the plaintiffs,” said Dawn Adams, Kennewick School Board president. “This puts to rest the questions of whether or not the district knew about the alleged abuse in advance and was responsible for the students on non-school sanctioned trips. We appreciate the effort that the jury put into trying to resolve all four cases.”
Jeff Kreutz of Tamaki Law in Kennewick, which represented the former students, couldn’t be reached after court about the jury’s verdict.
The mistrial means those two cases could be brought back to court, settled or dropped.
The jury’s decision capped an emotional month-long trial centered on whether the school district did enough to protect students from William “Bill” Pickerel.
The longtime educator had a stunning fall from grace. He was beloved at Kennewick High School, where he spent much of his career — the annex building there even was named after him.
But he was arrested in 2007 and pleaded guilty the next year to abusing five Tri-City boys on overnight trips. The trips — to events like Mariners games— weren’t organized or sanctioned by the school district.
Pickerel also admitted to abusing other boys over the years.
In all, 15 former students have sued the school district in Benton County Superior Court, saying it knew or should have known that Pickerel was a predator and that it failed to protect them.
The cases were divided into separate trials. The current case was the first to make it to a jury.
Another covered three former students and ended last year in a settlement, the details of which haven’t been made public. Two more trials are planned but not yet scheduled.
The current trial started in late February and included testimony from the four former students — all attended Kennewick High in the 1990s or 2000s — plus school district officials and experts.
Jurors even heard from Pickerel, who is not a party in the civil case. Now 82, he served a little more than half his 10-year prison sentence and was released in 2014 on good behavior.
The jury of eight women and four men began deliberating in the middle of last week. On Friday afternoon, they told Judge Carrie Runge that they’d reached an impasse — they were able to decide about two of the former students involved in the lawsuit, but not the other two. She asked them to consider keeping at it.
The jurors came back into court at about 2 p.m. Monday, saying they’d made no more progress.
Kreutz said during closing arguments that the signs of Pickerel’s abuse clearly were there.
It was well-known that he took male students on overnight trips, and at least some Kennewick High staffers knew he was sleeping in the same bed as students on those trips, attorney Kreutz said.
At one point, a parent called the school’s principal to express concern about the sleeping arrangements, Kreutz said.
Pickerel was called in for a meeting, but he was unresponsive and the matter went no further, the attorney said.
School administrators also met with Pickerel a different time to talk about the sleeping arrangements, but, again, no action was taken, Kreutz said.
He said his clients suffered damage as the result of Pickerel’s abuse, experiencing everything from addiction to suicidal thoughts and feelings of guilt and shame. He said the jury should award each $1 million.
But a child abuse expert described Pickerel as an atypical predator who didn’t groom his victims in the usual way and she wouldn’t have identified him as an abuser had she worked alongside him, said school district attorney Michael McFarland.
Pickerel started working in Kennewick schools in 1960. He retired in 1998, but continued substitute teaching. He now lives in Seattle as a Level III sex offender.