Settlement reached in teacher sex case

Tacoma - The Tacoma School District and two smaller South Sound school districts have agreed to pay a Tacoma family nearly $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit stemming from teacher Jennifer L. Rice's sexual abuse of two students.

Rice was convicted last year of kidnapping and raping a 10-year-old boy she taught at Tacoma’s McKinley Elementary School. She was also found guilty of raping the boy’s older brother, who was 15 at the time.

Rice, a mother of three, was sentenced to between 25 years and life in prison – a harsher-than-usual sentence because she was a teacher.

The settlement agreements must still be approved by a Pierce County Superior Court judge.

Yelm and Bethel school districts reached agreement with the Tacoma family Wednesday, and Tacoma did so Friday. The case was set to go to trial Monday.

The Tacoma School District plans to pay the family $1.2 million, while the Yelm and Bethel school districts agreed to settle for a combined $285,000. If the court approves, the money will be paid out by the districts’ insurance companies.

Rice was employed by Tacoma at the time she committed her crimes. But she had previously worked in Yelm and Bethel, where questions about her inappropriate behavior with students had been raised by administrators, teachers and parents.

Rice’s victims are now ages 13 and 18.

“This case was not about the money for them,” said attorney Clay Selby, who represented the boys and their parents in the civil case. “This was really about right and wrong, and about ensuring that this family has the means to address the injuries they have sustained.”

The Tacoma School District hired Rice in October 2006.

Prosecutors in Rice’s criminal case said she began a sexual relationship with the younger boy that lasted from December 2006 to August 2007. They said that is when Rice sneaked him out of his home and drove him to Ellensburg, where she had sex with the boy. Prosecutors also said Rice had sex twice with the boy’s older brother in July 2007.

Rice was arrested in August 2007, but the district had placed her on administrative leave months earlier on suspicion of inappropriate contact with her student.

The case raised questions about when Tacoma school officials had learned about allegations in Rice’s past, and whether they could have fired her once they learned of it.

Bethel hired Rice to teach Spanish at Spanaway Lake High School during the 1998-99 school year.

According to court documents in the civil case, Spanaway Lake administrators warned Rice about her behavior after they heard reports of her socializing with students, attending a party where students drank alcohol and smoked marijuana in her presence, and her sexually suggestive comment to a student at the party. Bethel officials placed her on leave while they investigated, and Rice resigned from the job in spring 1999, court documents say.

She was hired to teach second grade in the Yelm School District in 2005, where allegations about her improper behavior with students surfaced again. She resigned in spring 2006, according to court documents.

The family claimed in the civil lawsuit that the school districts were negligent in their hiring practices and in their supervision of Rice.

Mick McFarland, the attorney who represented Yelm, said neither it nor Bethel believed it bore legal liability for crimes Rice committed after she left their employment.

But he said the two smaller districts believed the settlement worked in the best interest of the two boys, “allowing them to move on with their lives without having to go through the rigors of a trial.”

In a written statement issued Friday, the Tacoma School District described its efforts to protect stud- ents in the wake of the Rice case.

In 2008, Tacoma schools began training employees about keeping appropriate boundaries and identifying behavior that could lead to sexual grooming and molesting of students.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635