Berryessa Union School District Pays $10M to Settle Teacher Sexual Abuse Lawsuits

Berryessa Union School District has agreed to pay $10.3 million to a group of former Sierramont Middle School students who were groomed and sexually abused in the late 1990s and early 2000s by a teacher who in 2023 was convicted and sentenced to two decades in prison after the victims renewed their allegations against him.

The settlement with the Berryessa Union School District was announced Tuesday by the San Jose-based law firm Cerri, Boskovich & Allard, which secured the payout on behalf of three students. Two of them testified in the prosecution of Ronald Dean Gardner, who was sentenced in December to 22 years in prison after pleading guilty to sexually abusing a total of four students.

Gardner taught at the school more than two decades ago and was plagued by allegations of inappropriate conduct with students. He was allowed to resign after a police investigation at the time failed to yield any criminal charges against him. In 2021, students came forward again with abuse allegations after Assembly Bill 218, which was in effect from 2020 to 2022, granted a one-time extension of the statute of limitations.

The lawsuit alleged that the district and school officials allowed Gardner to continue teaching and supervising students for years in the face of misconduct claims. The plaintiffs also contended the district kept him employed with an emergency teaching credential that was renewed each year, and failed to give him the additional supervision required for someone in those circumstances.

“How does somebody remain a teacher for that long, year after year after year? It’s almost as if they were bending over backwards to keep him,” plaintiff’s attorney Lauren Cerri said. “He was reprimanded but they still allowed him to stay instead of hiring a credentialed teacher.”

“They could have gotten rid of him for any reason, but instead they chose to keep him despite the complaints, despite the red flags,” Cerri added, referring to the district’s wide authority to terminate Gardner because of his non-tenured status. “And after the complaints, you would think they would have eyes all over him.”

One of the victims who sued, referred to in the lawsuit as John Doe 1, said “this experience has been extremely difficult, forced me to relive my trauma and taken years of my life away.”

“The compensation I’ve received, in my opinion, is a moot point. There is no amount of money that will make up for abuse I endured and how that changed the trajectory of my life,” he said in a statement provided by the law firm. “If I’ve learned anything it’s that this is yet another example of our governmental institutions failing to protect kids and more evidence of our justice system skewed against victims.”

Another plaintiff, named John Doe 3 in the lawsuit, said in a statement: “After over two decades of suffering in silence, I feel like I’ve reached a level of vindication. Although I have a lot of work left ahead in order to heal, I feel like I have been given back the control I lost as a young child.”

Gardner was hired at Sierramont in 1996; he taught science and also coached the track team and advised the chess club at the school.

When Gardner was arrested in April 2021, San Jose police cited a 2003 police report in which a student alerted the school to being the subject of inappropriate touching and sexually explicit and aggressive language from Gardner. The recently settled lawsuit offered corroborating details, stating that Gardner was once reprimanded after a parent complained about him making sexual innuendos to students and contends a teacher later claimed to have witnessed him kiss a student on the cheek.

No charges resulted from the 2003 investigation, and Gardner resigned from the school soon after. He returned to police suspicion in February 2021 when one of the reported victims contacted the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office to report his past abuse, and the case was transferred to San Jose police. As the investigation continued and after Gardner was initially criminally charged, more people came forward with similar allegations.

In the lawsuit, John Doe 1 provided a particularly troubling anecdote about Gardner, claiming that the teacher was nearly caught while engaging in a sex act with him. He described how a janitor was about to enter Gardner’s classroom after school, and that Gardner “scrambled to pull up his pants” before the janitor walked in.

Doe claimed in the suit that the janitor saw Doe and Gardner alone in the classroom, but did not report the encounter. The result, Doe alleged, was that Gardner started blocking his door with a couch and posted a note warning people not to open the door or risk one of his classroom lizards or birds getting out.

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