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December 8, 2022

Sex Abuse Suit Against Former SLVUSD Admin Moves Slowly

Last week, a Solano County Superior Court judge raised concerns that the sexual abuse case against Ned Hearn, a former San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District employee, continues to drag on.

Yet on Sept. 14 at the Old Solano Courthouse, Judge Christine Carringer also said it’s important to wait for the Dixon Unified School District’s cross-complaint against the City of Dixon and a Dixon-based youth swim team—which had supposedly been filed—to emerge.

“We have not found a cross-complaint,” she said. “Unless it’s been stashed somewhere.”

Hearn is being sued in civil court by Melissa Chowning, who says the former SLVUSD assistant superintendent sexually assaulted her several times between 1994-99 while he was employed by DUSD.

SLVUSD didn’t renew Hearn’s administration contract in 2021, and his final day with the district was June 8, this year. Chowning filed the suit in 2020.

The hearing comes on the heels of the firing of longtime SLVUSD high school teacher William Winkler, in April, for inappropriate behavior, including belittling students.

Former SLVUSD superintendent Laurie Bruton announced in April 2021 that Winkler had been placed on administrative leave alongside another teacher, Eric Kahl.

Along with her accusations against Hearn, Chowning, who has waived her right to anonymity despite being a minor at the time she says the crimes occurred, has accused DUSD of negligent hiring and breaching its duty to report suspected child abuse.

The case focuses on Hearn’s activities prior to his employment with SLVUSD, although Chowning’s lawyers have said they may probe the extent to which Santa Cruz County school officials were aware of their client’s allegations.

In a filing earlier this month, Daniel L. Varon, of San Diego-based The Zalkin Law Firm P.C., reiterated Chowning’s claims, such as that Hearn, then a Dixon High School teacher and swim coach, began to groom her for sex when she was in the ninth grade.

Varon said Hearn ended up kissing, fondling and raping his client.

“This conduct occurred in the office at Dixon city pool used by Dixon High School for swim practice and at Hearn’s home,” he stated. “Hearn’s grooming behavior occurred in the presence of Dixon High School agents and/or employees and student athletes.”

At court in Fairfield last week, Carringer said adding the new parties would be key. She set the next hearing for Dec. 14 at 8:30am.

“My concern is the age of this case,” she said of the lawsuit, filed Sept. 1, 2020, under landmark #MeToo child sex abuse legislation that allowed older cases against public institutions to go ahead, despite the statute of limitations.

DUSD had attempted to get the judge to declare that legislation unconstitutional.

Lawyers for DUSD reported their client participated in a mediation session on the Hearn matter, July 27.

Lawyers for Chowning and Hearn say, to date, neither has been in mediation or settlement meetings—although they note they’re open to both.

For now, the parties are preparing to head to trial.

Hearn wants the case heard by a jury, in a 7-10-day proceeding.

Jynn A. Garcia, of Sacramento-based Spinelli, Donald and Nott, says discovery isn’t expected to continue until at least June 2023.

Exactly one year prior to this month’s hearing in Fairfield, SLVUSD agreed to let Kahl resign after investigators found the preponderance of evidence suggested he had “engaged in predatory grooming behaviors with current and former students.”

SLVUSD initiated the investigation into Kahl and Winkler after a social media account began posting stories written by anonymous users claiming sexual abuse by teachers on school grounds.

In July 2021, former SLVUSD middle and high school teacher, Michael Henderson, who was accused of abusing a 10-year-old girl during private after-school tutoring, pleaded guilty to a felony assault count in order to have the other charges dropped.

This allowed Henderson to avoid registering as a sex offender.

Then on April 20, SLVUSD decided to remove Winkler after a unanimous vote in closed session—on a motion from Trustee Stacy Newsom Kerr that was seconded by Trustee Jacqui Rice.

SLVUSD Board President Mark Becker was absent from the board meeting.

An investigation by the district found persistent problems with Winkler over the years, including that he humiliated pupils, directed teaching assistants unethically and failed to maintain appropriate boundaries with multiple students.

Drew Penner
Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected]

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