High School Settles Coach-Athlete Abuse Case for $3.5M

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The Sonora (Calif.) Union High School District will pay $3.5 million as part of a settlement agreement with a former female student-athlete who sued the district over sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of former varsity basketball coach Amy Emerald.

District superintendent Ed Pelfrey and attorneys for the plaintiff confirmed to The Union Democrat of Sonora on Friday that the district agreed to settle the civil case Thursday mere days into a jury trial in Tuolumne County Superior Court.

“The Sonora Union High School District is pleased a resolution could be reached in this matter,” Pelfrey said in a written statement. “As we look forward to the upcoming school year and welcoming our students and staff back to campus next month, we want to confirm that we are wholly dedicated to creating and maintaining a community that supports the health and safety of our students and staff.”

Related: Coach-Player Grooming Among Sexual Misconduct Suits Facing District

By the fourth day of a trial expected to last more than two weeks, the jury had already heard from nearly 20 witnesses who were called to testify by the plaintiff’s attorneys from the San Francisco-based law firm Lewis and Llewellyn LLP. Witnesses included former and current school administrators and staff, as well as the plaintiff herself. The district announced its move to settle before experts could be called to testify.

The lawsuit was filed nearly two years ago after Emerald pleaded guilty in July 2020 to sexually abusing the plaintiff on multiple occasions while the plaintiff was a student at Sonora High and played on the school’s varsity basketball team from 2011 to 2015, according to Alex MacLean of The Union Democrat. Emerald, who previously went by Amy Santos, was arrested in 2019 weeks after the plaintiff in the civil case reported the sexual abuse to the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office.

In 2020, Emerald was sentenced to two years, eight months in state prison as part of a plea deal offered by the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office, which said at the time that it was intended to spare the victim from the further trauma and embarrassment of a trial.

The 27-page civil complaint filed by the plaintiff in 2021 claimed that Emerald began to groom her when she joined the varsity basketball team as a freshman in 2011, which escalated to hundreds of separate sexual acts spanning the plaintiff’s entire high school career, The Union Democrat reported. Emerald’s sexual abuse took place on school property and during school-sponsored basketball trips while staying in houses that Emerald rented for her and her team alone, according to the complaint.

The $3.5 million settlement will be paid from a statewide risk retention pool that serves as Sonora Union High School District’s liability insurance provider, as opposed to district funds used for school operations.

“Premiums are paid into the fund by multiple districts throughout the State for purposes of affording liability coverage to the districts that make up the pool,” said Norma Wallace, executive director of the Tuolumne Joint Powers Authority, which insures 21 school districts in Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador and Alpine counties. “Claims or suits that result in settlement are paid for from the risk retention pool’s funds.”

School administrators whom Erickson claimed did not file a report despite receiving complaints about Emerald’s conduct included former principal Todd Dearden, former longtime athletic director Rick Francis, former principal Pat Chabot, administrator Kim Evans, counselor Alissa Clifton, and English teacher Will Sarkisian, the transcripts stated.

“Athletic Director Francis even walked in on Emerald and Plaintiff alone in a storage room with the lights on and Plaintiff’s shirt halfway pulled up,” the complaint claims. “Still, no action was taken and none of the mandatory reporters at Sonora High or the District office reported anything to the proper authorities.”

The plaintiff later came to develop severe depression, anxiety, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder that required regular therapy after coming to “realize the cruel and manipulative nature of Emerald’s conduct,” the complaint claims.

Ryan Erickson, the plaintiff's lead attorney, said in a written statement Friday that they were “honored to play a small role in helping plaintiff tell her story and shine a light on a culture that needs to change.”

“Plaintiff presented testimony from 20 witnesses, who told the story of a dysfunctional school administration that repeatedly looked the other way when multiple students, and other members of the community, bravely came forward and reported witnessing sexually inappropriate actions by Amy Emerald toward the Plaintiff,” Erickson said, as reported by The Union Democrat. “The District's own documents and testimony confirmed the systematic failures that enabled the abuse to occur and continue for years."

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