Sex abuse suit: School district failed to stop coach who 'lost count' of victims

William Pickerel (KEPR-TV file photo)

KENNEWICK, Wash. – The second of four trials is underway this week in a lawsuit claiming the Kennewick School District failed to protect multiple students from sex abuse.

The district is accused of negligence in dealing with former Kennewick High School teacher and coach William (Bill) Pickerel, who is now a convicted sex offender.

Initial court documents show that 15 men were seeking millions of dollars in damages from the Kennewick School District, claiming that administrators and teachers knew of Coach Pickerel's out-of-town sports trips with male students, but never stopped them.

The trips were not organized by Kennewick High School, but the plaintiff’s attorneys argue that the district failed to protect the students from being sexually abused by Pickerel.

Pickerel was employed by Kennewick School District from 1960 to 1998, and stayed on after that as a part-time substitute teacher.

Pickerel pleaded guilty in King County Superior Court in 2008 to molestation and sexual misconduct with a minor for molesting students on overnight trips to Seattle.

The criminal case involved five boys, who are now adults, from the Tri-Cities. But Pickerel once admitted to police that he molested so many victims over the 27 years, he lost count.

He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but was released on good behavior in early 2014 after serving 5 1/2 years.

Pickerel is not named in the current civil suit, which was filed in October 2014.

Last year, a Benton County Superior Court judge decided to divide the 15 plaintiffs into four groupings, three in the first trial, and four in each in the remaining trials.

The first group of plaintiffs came to a confidential settlement with the Kennewick School District last May.

Monday marked the start of the second week of trial for the second group of men accusing the school district of negligence.

Judith Billings, former superintendent of public instruction for Washington state, testified in court on Monday. Billings is currently an education consultant for Targeted Alliances, providing expert opinion to law firms on education issues.

Billings’ testimony included arguments over the standards of school districts when they find out about these kinds of trips. Billings argues that Kennewick School District didn't meet the standard of care to keep students safe.

Attorneys for the district argue that the trips were not school sponsored or sanctioned. Instead, the attorneys said the individual parents made the independent decision to allow their sons to go on these private trips.

Dottie Stevensm former principal of Kennewick High School, took the stand later in the afternoon.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said testimony was expected to include a compliant she received back in 1998 from a parent about the sleeping arrangements of Pickerel's trips with students.

Kennewick School District refused to comment on this case. The second trial is expected to last three weeks.

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