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Ventura County

District Is Accused of Ignoring Warnings

Schools: Officials were told of inappropriate behavior by Camarillo teacher two years before he was charged with molesting, claim says.

June 01, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Parents and students warned Camarillo High School officials of inappropriate behavior by Chad Pridgen at least two years before the 30-year-old science teacher was charged with molesting 11 teenage boys, according to a legal claim released by the Oxnard Union High School District on Friday.

The claim alleges that district and school officials ignored complaints brought against Pridgen--at least one of which was in writing--and seeks up to $32 million in damages from the district, the school board, Camarillo High School and several individual employees.

It further accuses district officials of trying to keep information from the alleged victims' families and the public even after Pridgen's Feb. 5 arrest, by destroying documents, lying to investigators and refusing to be interviewed.

Carol Woo, attorney for the school district, could not be reached for comment. Woo released the claim, filed on behalf of four alleged victims and their families, late Friday in response to a request filed Wednesday by The Times under the California Public Records Act.

Pridgen, a teacher and coach at the school for six years, faces 39 criminal counts involving 11 teenage boys, all but two of whom were students at the high school. The alleged sex acts occurred during the last two years and range from felonies, such as forcing boys to have oral sex, to misdemeanors that involved behaving lewdly in front of minors.

According to the claim filed May 24, former Principal Terry Tackett was given information in 1999 by a student and the student's parents about inappropriate comments allegedly made by Pridgen to male students.

This included telling them stories about men giving each other oral sex, inquiring about the boys' sex lives and asking whether the teenagers had ever had sex with a man Pridgen's age.

Several other school officials were "put on notice of these inappropriate, lewd and sexually harassing comments and questions on a number of occasions, but negligently failed to investigate the complaints, and subsequently failed to supervise, train or terminate Pridgen," according to the claim.

In an interview earlier this month with investigators, Tackett denied that he had ever received such complaints about Pridgen.

Soccer Coach Turned In Written Warning

The claim also includes a hand-written letter dated Oct. 21, 2001, and signed by Rachel Hornbek, a junior varsity girls soccer coach at Camarillo High.

That letter, sent to current Principal Sylvia Jackson, states Hornbek had "heard reports that Mr. Pridgen shared sexually explicit stories from his personal life" with students in his soccer class.

During her third interview with investigators, Jackson admitted she received the letter and faxed it to Assistant Supt. Roger Rice, the claim says.

Hornbek was never contacted by anyone from the district office to discuss the allegations in her letter, and no further action was taken, according to the claim. In the fall of 2001, Hornbek also told her supervisor, Athletic Director Mike Smith, that students had told her that Pridgen talked constantly about oral sex and provided underage students with alcohol during parties at his house.

Rice denied knowing about the allegations in Hornbek's letter. He said he reports directly to Supt. Gary Davis, who has refused to be interviewed by investigators.

Steven A. Gama, the school district's risk manager, said Thursday that officials want to resolve the claim outside of court. He said the district is conducting its own investigation into the matter.

Ventura attorney Brenda Andrade, who filed the claim, declined to comment on the allegations against the school district.

Pridgen has been on unpaid leave since his arrest Feb. 5. He is free on $500,000 bail, and his preliminary hearing is set for July 23.

Teacher Allegedly Used Authority to Coerce Sex

Authorities say Pridgen sexually harassed and molested students on and off campus for at least 21/2 years. Prosecutors also have argued that Pridgen used his authority as a teacher to coerce teenage boys into engaging in sex acts with him.

The criminal investigation began when one of the alleged victims, now 18, reported to police in late January that Pridgen asked him in his classroom to perform oral sex on another student.

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