Crime

Olympia School District faces sixth lawsuit in the wake of bus driver’s molestation conviction

The Olympia School District is facing another lawsuit filed by a parent whose child may have been molested by a former school bus driver.

The former bus driver, Gary D. Shafer, was convicted in 2011 of molesting three children and possessing child pornography. He was sentenced to 13 years, 6 months to life in prison in 2011. Shafer is serving his sentence at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen.

Since then, six civil suits have been filed in Thurston County Superior Court against the School District, with some parents alleging that the district should have done more to prevent the molestations, and others alleging that the district officials should have worked harder to find out which children had been abused.

The most recent lawsuit, filed Jan. 13, alleges that Shafer molested a sixth-grade boy during the 2008 through 2009 school year. Shafer hasn’t been criminally charged for assaulting the boy.

Tacoma-based attorney Darrell Cochran, who filed the lawsuit, said this particular claim is different from the others because this is the first male victim to come forward. In the criminal case and previous civil cases, the victims are all female.

“We suspected that a few special needs boys had been molested, and this lawsuit goes a long way to proving that,” Cochran said.

Olympia School District Rebecca Japhet emailed a statement to The Olympian on Friday afternoon.

“The School District received a copy of the lawsuit late this afternoon and has not had the opportunity to review it. The School District does not want to respond to any specific allegations until we have had the opportunity to thoroughly review the complaint and speak with anyone who may have information about the allegations,” she wrote.

Cochran said the boy’s mother approached him in late 2014 after hearing about the previous cases from friends. She recognized Shafer as her son’s former bus driver — at one point, he had even taken the boy hiking — but before then, she hadn’t known he was convicted of child molestation, Cochran said.

She recalled that her son began acting out at about the same time he was interacting with Shafer. She sought professional help for her son, and he eventually told her that he had been molested by his former bus driver.

“Sexual abuse of boys in particular still has a terrible stigma, so that could be why he didn’t come forward sooner,” Cochran said. “We’re hoping that with this lawsuit other boys will be able to come forward and get the help they need.”

The lawsuit places the blame of the boy’s alleged molestation on the Olympia School District. In court documents, Cochran wrote that while the boy was in the district’s care, he should have been protected from physical harm, including sexual assaults.

“The Olympia School District failed to properly train its employees on how to recognize obvious signs that Shafer was using school buses to molest vulnerable students. The district brushed aside the importance of training school employees on understanding that a molester’s best camouflage is our unwillingness to see him,” he wrote.

Cochran said this is the sixth lawsuit filed against the Olympia School District as a result of Shafer’s crimes.

Victims in one lawsuit were awarded a $1.42 million settlement following a 2012 trial. The School District’s insurer agreed to pay $750,000 to settle a case in September of 2013 and $1.2 million to settle another case in January of 2014.

A fourth case could go to trial in November of this year, and a fifth could go to trial in January of 2016.

The most recent lawsuit doesn’t ask for a specific sum of money, but instead asks for, “general and special damages as will be proved at the time of trial,” in addition to costs and attorney fees.

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