Walla Walla school bus

Walla Walla School District students board morning buses last year before the pandemic shut down in-person learning here for nearly a year.

The Walla Walla School District is facing a lawsuit alleging school officials didn’t do enough to protect students from a teacher accused, but not charged, in 2008 of inappropriate touching who continued to work in the district for many years.

The mother of a former Pioneer Middle School student has initiated the suit, saying a former band teacher sexually touched her daughter in 2015-2016. The documents do not name the alleged victim or the mother except by initials.

Tacoma attorney Darrell L. Cochran, representing the mother and daughter, said the girl was 12 at the time of the alleged abuse.

District officials issued a statement this week saying they take the allegations in the lawsuit seriously and naming Michael Jones as the former band teacher accused of the misconduct.

Before the girl in this lawsuit was even a student at Pioneer, Jones had been accused of “inappropriate touching” in January 2008. That case never went forward, however, because Walla Walla County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Nagle did not file charges, so Jones returned to work, according to previous reporting by the U-B.

The lawsuit alleges the district then received “multiple complaints” about Jones’ inappropriate behavior with students between 2008-2016 and that former Pioneer and district leaders “disregarded the safety” of girls at the middle school by not taking action against Jones.

According to a July 2020 District newsletter, Jones was recognized in the “resignation/retirements” section, noting he’d worked at Pioneer for 30 years. He resigned effective Aug. 31, 2020, said the school district’s attorney, Patricia Buchanan.

Buchanan said Jones was on administrative leave starting October 2019 until he resigned. The Washington Courts database does not show any criminal matters for anyone named Michael Jones in Walla Walla County from 2008-2021.

“Walla Walla Public Schools recognizes that the allegations set forth in the lawsuit touch upon sensitive subjects for all the involved individuals,” district officials said this week in their statement about the lawsuit.

“As this matter proceeds through the litigation process, the district will remain committed to providing a safe and positive educational experience for all of its students, teachers, parents, and the community.”

The timing of this lawsuit is related to the girl and her mother seeing a similar situation at another school district, which encouraged them to contact Cochran’s office, which specializes in these types of cases.

Cochran said he believes the victim would have come forward sooner, but she feared retaliation.

“It’s the invidious nature of child sexual abuse,” Cochran said.

Cochran has been involved in multiple multi-million dollar lawsuits against public organizations, including a recent $4.25 million settlement with the Issaquah School District.

“We do a lot of school district abuse cases,” Cochran said.

The suit alleges that Jones gave the girl special attention, gaining her trust, and then he sexually harassed her by touching and tickling her, sometimes under her clothes.

District officials directed any further questions to Buchanan, a Seattle-area lawyer.

Buchanan has been involved in multiple civil suits involving government institutions and large companies.

Cochran acknowledged that the 2008 accusation wasn’t prosecuted, but he said it doesn’t excuse the district of allowing Jones “unfettered” access to children.

“Why didn’t the district do more after the 2008 allegations?” Cochran wondered. “There’s no good reason greater oversight wasn’t given to Jones.”

The lawsuit alleges that in allowing Jones to continue teaching at Pioneer, he was allowed to continue in a position where he could prey on young girls, such as the girl in this case.

Cochran argued that school leaders would be completely transparent about a potential salmonella outbreak at a cafeteria, yet when sexual abuse allegations are raised, everything is kept hush-hush.

“For whatever reason, there’s a completely different approach when it comes to children who are sexually abused, especially girls,” Cochran said. “It’s bizarre. It’s systemic gender discrimination.”

The suit calls for a civil trial to be conducted and for the payment of legal fees and damages established in the trial.

The allegations are still within the statute of limitations, according to Washington state law, so Jones could be charged with new crimes if authorities opt to pursue them.

The suit names several former school district administrators and employees as defendants, listed as John and Jane Does.

Jedidiah Maynes can be reached at jedidiahmaynes@wwub.com or 509-526-8318.

Jedidiah Maynes is a reporter for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin covering a variety of topics including local court cases. He enjoys making music and puns.