By Sanne Specht
A former Little Butte Elementary School teacher and counselor being sued for allegedly molesting young girls had a history of inappropriate behavior, according to sworn statements made by two former female students and a parent.
The legal documents will be used as evidence to support a federal civil suit that alleges Joel Heller molested two young girls in his classroom in fall 2011 and that school administrators knew Heller had a pattern of abusive behavior and failed to protect the students, said Tom Petersen, a Medford attorney. Petersen said the incidents involving the former students occurred between 2005 and 2007.
Petersen filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Medford in December 2012 on behalf of two other unidentified girls alleging that Heller repeatedly restrained and molested them during class and recess time in 2011.
Eagle Point School District Superintendent Cynda Rickert said Tuesday afternoon the legal documents were received last week. Rickert is named as a defendant in the suit, along with the district and school Principal Lynn Scott.
Rickert said she is checking into the allegations, but offered no comment. The district’s attorney, Kim Hoyt, also declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. Calls to Heller were not returned Monday.
Heller, of Ashland, no longer works for the district. He denied the suit’s allegations in December, stating he was cleared of the charges by police and school investigators after the initial complaints about him surfaced in fall 2011.
“Fifth-grade girls made something up, and I’ve been suffering ever since,” Heller told the Mail Tribune. Heller said in December he was a school counselor for 20 years and was never previously accused of inappropriate behavior but has been unable to work in schools since the allegations first arose. Petersen alleged Tuesday that statements from the new victims, who are now in high school, detail a pattern of abusive behavior on Heller’s part and a pattern of denial on the part of the district and its administrators.
In the 2011 incidents, Heller would call one of the girls to his desk and allegedly hold her and grope her, often in front of the class, the girls’ statements claim. In other instances, the abuse occurred while Heller was alone with one of the girls in the classroom during recess, Petersen said. The suit also claims Heller had special counseling sessions with one of the victims to glean information about her and her family that he later used to abuse her.
The lawsuit claims Rickert and Scott knew Heller had “prurient interests in minor female students.” Petersen said the statements from the two new girls and from one of the girl’s parents support that allegation.
“There are regulations for teachers,” Petersen said. “Teachers are taught not to cross those boundaries.”
The new victims claim Heller took them into a windowless office, closed the door and slid his hand up under their clothing and rubbed their thighs during counseling sessions, according to the sworn statements.
Heller’s actions frightened and confused the girls, their statements said, but Heller told them what he was doing was “OK.” The girls’ testimony states other girlfriends later told them at the time that Heller had “done similar things to them in the past.”
Heller put his hand down the back of one student’s shirt in a hallway. He also showed up at her home unasked, insisting he be allowed to counsel her, the documents state. In February 2007, the girl’s father and stepmother had a meeting with Heller, Scott and the girl’s teacher in Heller’s office.
“While the door to the office was closed, I stood outside and could hear yelling inside, particularly my father, who I could hear telling Mr. Heller that if he ever touched me or my friends again that he would do Mr. Heller physical harm,” the girl said in her statement.
The student closed her statement by saying she hoped “someone would hear what children have to say about Mr. Heller’s conduct with them so that he won’t do it to any other child,” and that she wanted administrators to take reports of inappropriate touching seriously and alert authorities. “There should have been a neutral police investigation,” Petersen said. “That’s what should have happened.”
Instead, the girls who recently came forward were told they were troublemakers, Petersen said, adding one girl had recently lost a sibling to cancer, and a close family member of the other recently had been murdered at the time of the alleged molestation.
“He picked out kids who were different or who were vulnerable,” Petersen said. Heller’s alleged behavior toward the girls in the lawsuit came to light when the two friends were talking about Heller’s actions in fall 2011, Petersen said.
One of their parents overheard them, Petersen said. That parent telephoned the other girl’s family, and they immediately reported it to Eagle Point police, he said. The police conducted an investigation and forwarded it to the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office, which declined to prosecute Heller, Petersen said.
Petersen, a former prosecutor, said the DA might not have been so hesitant to proceed if Heller’s previous alleged contact with the two students who have now come forward had been documented and investigated. Instead it was brushed under the rug, Petersen said.
“What are (the district officials) doing?” Petersen said. “Who are they supposed to be protecting, if not the students?”
The federal suit alleges that the girls’ civil rights were violated. The suit seeks unspecified economic and punitive damages for both girls, listed in court documents only as Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2. Petersen said he also will seek to have Heller banned from working in schools.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.