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Suit alleges Ashland man molested students in Eagle Point

A new federal civil suit alleges that a former Little Butte Elementary School teacher and counselor repeatedly molested two young girls in his classroom in fall 2011 and that school administrators failed to protect the girls from abuse.

Filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Medford, the suit alleges that teacher Joel Heller, of Ashland, repeatedly restrained the unidentified girls and molested them during class and recess time.

Heller would call one of the girls to his desk, where he allegedly held her and groped her, often in front of the class, said Tom Petersen, a Medford attorney who represents both girls.

In other instances, the abuse was alone in the classroom during recess, Petersen alleged.

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 suit states.

"Kids being so innocent, they don't know what this is about," Petersen said Monday. "They knew enough that it frightened them and caused them to tell."

The suit also names as plaintiffs Eagle Point School District Superintendent Cynda Rickert and school Principal Lynn Scott for failing to protect the children and even alleges that Rickert and Scott knew Heller had "prurient interests in minor female students," the suit states.

Heller denied the allegations Monday and said he was cleared of the charges by police and school investigations 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 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.

Heller declined to discuss the case further.

"If they're coming after me, I need to get a lawyer and find out what I should say or not," Heller said.

The two girls, who are friends, were talking about Heller's actions in fall 2011 when one of their parents overheard them, Petersen said. The parent telephoned the other girl's family and they immediately reported it to Eagle Point police, Petersen said.

The police conducted an investigation and forwarded it to the Jackson County District Attorney's Office, which earlier this year declined to prosecute Heller, Petersen said.

That led to the federal civil suit, alleging among other crimes that the girls' civil rights were violated.

Scott Whitman, the school district's director of business services, said district lawyers received a copy of the suit late Monday. Whitman said the district also investigated the allegation, but declined to say whether the district fired Heller or discuss other aspects of the suit.

"The district is always looking out for the safety of all our students," Whitman said.

The new 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.

"It's kind of shocking, but it's not the first case of a Rogue Valley teacher doing that," Petersen said.

Former Howard Elementary School teacher Chris Gilman was fired by the Medford School District amid accusations of similar inappropriate touching in 2010.

Gilman's case was investigated by police and the district attorney's office declined to prosecute Gilman. Petersen represented Gilman's accuser and won an out-of-court settlement in a subsequent civil case, court records show.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.