By Sanne Specht
CENTRAL POINT — Some Mae Richardson Elementary School parents are demanding to know why the district hired a woman named as a defendant in a sex abuse civil suit as their new principal.
Central Point School District officials defended Lynn Scott as a well-respected educator and reminded the public that a lawsuit is not proof of guilt.
Brant Harnois, who has three children at Mae Richardson, said the district “hid” Scott’s hiring and behaved in a “shady” manner. He and other parents said they were not made aware of Scott’s involvement in the lawsuit before she was hired and wondered whether the Central Point School Board even knew.
“My main concern and argument is why would the district/superintendent hire a new principal that has a known lawsuit against her that alleges she did not prevent abuse of students,” Harnois said. He said a petition is circulating demanding transparency regarding Scott’s hiring.
Scott is the principal of Hillside Elementary School, formerly known as Little Butte Elementary, in the Eagle Point School District. She is named in a federal civil suit alleging that Joel Heller, former Little Butte teacher and counselor, molested two young girls in his classroom in fall 2011 and that school administrators knew Heller had a pattern of abusive behavior and failed to protect the students.
Outgoing Central Point Superintendent Randy Gravon defended Scott, stating she is a “well-known, outstanding educator.”
He pointed out that Eagle Point police and the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office declined to file criminal charges against Heller or anyone else related to the case. He said it was Scott who brought the matter of the lawsuit before the board during her interview process.
“At this point there is no credible evidence that Lynn Scott did anything wrong,” Gravon said. “I understand parents’ concerns. But to tarnish an entire career (over a pending lawsuit) is equally unfair.”
Scott declined to speak about the specifics of the lawsuit, but said Tuesday afternoon that she denied all allegations of wrongdoing.
“I have done nothing wrong,” Scott said.
Also named in the suit is Eagle Point School District and its superintendent, Cynda Rickert.
“District 9 (Eagle Point) stands behind me and it always has,” Scott said.
Scott cited Central Point as her hometown, and she attended Mae Richardson when she was in grade school.
“I am pleased and honored at the opportunity to be hired at the elementary school I attended as a child,” she said.
Gravon, who is retiring in June, said he did not actively participate in the hiring process, but that he was consulted by board members and by incoming Superintendent Samantha Steele.
“We had a number of candidates. Lynn was determined to be the best-qualified” by the board, whose vote was unanimous, Gravon said.
“We did due diligence.”
A public meeting on Scott’s hiring is planned at 4 p.m. Thursday at Mae Richardson, 200 W. Pine St., Central Point.
Medford attorney Tom Petersen filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Medford in December 2012 on behalf of two unidentified girls who allege that Heller repeatedly restrained and molested them during class and recess time in 2011. In a March 27 news story, Petersen said he had affidavits from incidents involving two additional students that allegedly occurred between 2005 and 2007.
The lawsuit claims both Rickert and Scott knew Heller had “prurient interests in minor female students.” In February 2007, a father and stepmother of one of the girls had a contentious closed-door meeting with Heller, Scott and the girl’s teacher.
“While the door to the office was closed, I stood outside and could hear yelling inside, particularly my father, who I could hear telling Mr. Heller that if he ever touched me or my friends again that he would do Mr. Heller physical harm,” the girl said in a statement.
The student closed her statement by saying she hoped Heller would be stopped, and that she wanted administrators to take reports of inappropriate touching seriously and alert authorities.
Petersen, a former prosecutor, said criminal charges were not filed against Heller, who has repeatedly denied all allegations. But the DA might not have been so hesitant to proceed if Heller’s previous alleged contact with the two students who have now come forward had been documented and investigated. Instead it was brushed under the rug, Petersen alleged.
Mary Kendall, whose son attends Mae Richardson, also voiced concerns about the allegations against Scott, and at the perceived lack of transparency regarding her hiring.
“My concern is that (Scott) will let this happen at (Mae Richardson),” Kendall said, adding she spoke with Steele who told her Scott was a personal friend, and that she would vouch for her.
Steele did not return calls to the Mail Tribune on Tuesday. Scott verified she and Steele were colleagues in Eagle Point, and serve together on a state education organization.
Kendall and Harnois said there were at least seven candidates who applied for the job as principal. They remained concerned that a candidate with a pending lawsuit alleging child abuse was the district’s best choice, they said.
“The district had an opportunity to do this in an open manner and they chose not to. They did this in kind of a shady way,” Kendall said.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.