Eagle Point School District settles alleged molestation suit

A $25,000 settlement has been negotiated in a lawsuit alleging that a former Eagle Point teacher molested students.

U.S. District Court on Friday closed the case against the Eagle Point School District, former Little Butte Elementary teacher Joel Heller, District Superintendant Cynda Rickert and Mae Richardson Elementary Principal Lynn Scott, formerly principal of Little Butte. The settlement came after Oregon's teacher licensing agency in November dismissed a complaint against Heller for lack of sufficient cause to charge him with misconduct.

"I actually wanted this case to go to court to fully clear my name," said Heller, an Ashland resident. "Unfortunately, this is a risk all school personnel face." Seeking $2 million, Medford attorney Thomas Petersen filed the suit on behalf of two unidentified girls in December 2012 in District Court in Medford. Petersen also filed the complaint against Heller with the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission. His clients alleged that Heller repeatedly restrained and molested them during class and recess time in 2011. The suit further alleged that school administrators knew Heller had a pattern of abusive behavior and failed to protect students.

"We brought this case in good faith," Petersen said. "We have evidence."

No criminal charges were filed in the case, although police and the Jackson County District Attorney's Office reviewed it. Because the TSPC's case against Heller was dismissed, the agency's reports and findings are confidential.

The relatively small settlement figure, said Heller, shows the "weakness and falseness of the allegations." He has not been employed in the Eagle Point School District for several years.

"We continue to deny any type of liability," said Allen Barber, the school district's human resources director. "Our attorneys informed them that they had no case."

Calling the settlement a "good, smart business decision," Barber said the cost to the district was "very low" and would be covered by its insurance.

"The amount that it would take to take the case to trial would be much more than settling it," he said.

Heller said he understands the school district's and insurance company's motivations to settle rather than spend time defending him in court.

"My 25 years of working to help kids can't be erased," he said.

— Sarah Lemon


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