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District Sued Over Alleged Molestations

Oxnard: Families say school officials ignored warnings about a Camarillo High teacher later accused of sexually abusing several boys.

October 03, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A lawsuit filed Wednesday against the Oxnard Union High School District accuses school officials of disregarding complaints brought against a Camarillo teacher years before he was charged with molesting several of his male students.

In the 44-page complaint, seven teenage boys and their families allege 23 separate causes of action, including that school and district officials violated students' civil rights and contributed to the delinquency of minors when they failed to disclose or act on information they had about the teacher's allegedly inappropriate behavior with his students.

Chad Wenzlick Pridgen, 30, who taught upper-level science courses and coached after-school sports at Camarillo High School for six years, faces 39 felony and misdemeanor counts alleging various sex acts with 11 teenage boys. He is free on $500,000 bail.

"It's our belief that, had the school district taken proper action to protect the students when they knew of Pridgen's misconduct, none of this would have happened and none of the children would have been sexually abused or harassed," said Brenda Andrade, the attorney who filed the complaint in Ventura County Superior Court. "We hope that the district will set an example for the children in this community by accepting responsibility for their mistake in this case."

The school district's attorney, Carol Woo, did not return calls seeking comment.

The lawsuit, which follows a legal claim filed by the same attorneys against the school district in May, stems from a months-long investigation by Andrade's law firm.

It alleges that the students were molested and harassed by Pridgen and that their parents suffered extreme emotional distress after learning that the district knew about the abuse and "failed to protect their children from him."

"Chad Pridgen, a teacher, soccer and tennis coach at Adolfo Camarillo High School, engaged in despicable acts of sexual misconduct with numerous students over a period of years," the lawsuit says. "During that time, Oxnard Union High School District and other named defendants failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of these children and to prevent future acts of molestation."

The lawsuit says school officials were put on notice about lewd, inappropriate and sexually harassing comments Pridgen made to students on several occasions but failed to investigate any of them.

Andrade and her partner, attorney Kevin DeNoce, also allege that officials engaged in a conspiracy to cover up their knowledge of those complaints.

As early as 1999, the lawsuit says, a student and his parents confronted then-Principal Terry Tackett and Assistant Principal Billie Covert about Pridgen's alleged inappropriate sexual comments to students.

Tackett told the parents he would look into the allegations, but that was never done, according to the lawsuit.

Tackett then denied receiving any complaints about Pridgen until Andrade and DeNoce produced a tape recording the parents made of the 1999 meeting, they said.

"That's what it takes to keep this school district honest," DeNoce said. "The only reason they admitted they knew about this is because the family had to tape-record the meeting."

Other evidence in the civil case includes a letter written by another Camarillo High coach in October 2001, in which she told school officials that Pridgen "shares sexually explicit stories from his personal life" with students in his soccer class.

At the same time, the lawsuit says, the coach told the school's athletic director that she heard Pridgen was having parties with male students at his house and serving them alcoholic beverages.

Despite these "obvious warning signs," the lawsuit says, the district failed to supervise Pridgen's activities, failed to investigate any of the complaints and did not remove him from his position or report any suspicion of sexual abuse of minors to police.

Several district employees are named in the complaint, including Principal Sylvia Jackson, former athletic director Mike Smith, Assistant Supt. Roger Rice and Supt. Gary Davis.

The lawsuit also seeks civil damages from Pridgen for his alleged sexual assault and battery against children and furnishing alcohol to minors, among other charges.

Pridgen has been on unpaid leave from the district since his Feb. 5 arrest.

Authorities have accused him of using his power as a teacher to coerce teenage boys into sex acts with him in his home. The activities included masturbating while watching pornographic videos and performing oral sex on him and each other, according to police. He is scheduled to appear in court Oct. 21.

DeNoce compared the district's actions in the Pridgen case with the failure of the Roman Catholic Church to remove priests accused of molesting children in churches across the country.

He and Andrade asked district officials to offer a fair settlement in order to spare the alleged victims more trauma.

The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of general and punitive damages.

"These are the people who are entrusted with the care and custody of the children of this community," DeNoce said. "The least they could do is take responsibility for their failure to act."

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