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Former Oregon elementary principal goes on trial, accused of ‘systematically sexually abusing’ 4 students

Jeffrey Hays, a former principal of Deep Creek Elementary School in Damascus, as his trial begins Thursday at the Clackamas County Courthouse in Oregon City. Hays is accused of sexually abusing some of his students when he was their principal between 2005 and 2009.  (Dave Killen/Oregonian)
Jeffrey Hays, a former principal of Deep Creek Elementary School in Damascus, as his trial begins Thursday at the Clackamas County Courthouse in Oregon City. Hays is accused of sexually abusing some of his students when he was their principal between 2005 and 2009. (Dave Killen/Oregonian)
By Zane Sparling Oregonian

It’s been five years since bombshell allegations of closed-door sexual abuse at a Damascus elementary school triggered headlines, lawsuits and substantial civil payouts.

But whether former Deep Creek Elementary Principal Jeffrey W. Hays, 67, is innocent or guilty will be determined over the next five weeks as both sides make their cases to Clackamas Circuit Court Judge Katherine Weber, who will preside over a bench trial without a jury.

On Thursday, Clackamas County Senior Deputy District Attorney Scott Healy told the judge that Hays had “systematically sexually abused” four children – two boys and two girls – enrolled variously in second to fourth grade from 2005 to 2009.

Healy quoted one of the students: “He told me that I was in trouble, that I had to stay quiet or my parents would find out. I never knew what I was being punished for.”

A second student described Hays’ touch as “like sandpaper,” Healy said, while another recalled him raising a finger to his lips, shushing the boy as he began to cry after being abused.

Defense attorney Jason Thompson offered a drastically different narrative and suggested the allegations were the product of false memories and greed.

“Mr. Hays has been dragged through the mud,” he said.

Hays faces six counts of first-degree sexual abuse and one count of first-degree unlawful sexual penetration.

In each case, the prosecutor said, Hays isolated the children alone in his office on the pretext of administering a multiplication test or to eat lunch together.

Healy said he planned to call all four students as witnesses, as well as the school’s booster club president, a PTA member and several teachers.

They would testify, he said, that Hays often drew the blinds in his office despite having a “million-dollar view” of Mount Hood and that his “door seemed like it was always shut when he was in there with a kid.”

Thompson disagreed, saying the two secretaries who worked 10 feet from Hays’ office threshold said the door was almost always open.

Authorities began investigating Hays in September 2016 after one student, by then a sophomore in high school, reported being sexually abused by Hays when she was in second or third grade.

She and another student who had grown up on the same street contacted authorities that year. Prosecutors wrote a memo declining to prosecute the former principal in 2018, Healy said, but the case came back to life after two boys who had attended the school also alleged that Hays had sexually abused them.

Hays was indicted in March 2021.

Thompson, the defense attorney, said authorities had expected a flood of new accusations after the charges were unsealed. Instead, Hays faces accusations from only four students over his 40-year tenure in public school education, Thompson said.

The first accusation arose, he said, from bad blood between the student and Hays that had begun years before, when another Deep Creek student began sexually harassing her.

The family filed a federal lawsuit in 2010 after the district failed to remove the other student from the school. The suit was eventually settled for about $50,000, Healy said.

When the first abuse accusation came to light in 2016, Thompson claimed the girl was in the midst of a “breakdown” after getting in trouble with her parents. He said the girl’s mother had spent years blaming the student’s behavioral issues on the learning environment at Deep Creek and then began asking the student “leading questions” about whether something else was wrong.

“It was running rampant through (the student’s) mind that Mr. Hays was a really bad person,” Thompson said.

The girl soon spoke with her childhood neighbor, who a few weeks later also reported being sexually abused by Hays, both Thompson and Healy said.

The second student, now university freshman, filed a $20 million civil lawsuit against the Gresham-Barlow School District in 2017 for the sexual abuse, court records show. A Multnomah County jury eventually awarded her $3 million.

In 2018, a third student, now a teenager, learned of the ongoing legal proceedings and told a drug rehabilitation program counselor that Hays had sexually abused him, according to Healy.

The student said he had suppressed the memory and “was scared back then,” Healy told the judge.

The boy wasn’t friends with the first two students who alleged abuse, the prosecutor said.

Thompson argued the boy was trying to convince his mother to let him leave the recovery center and that the guidance counselor he told was skeptical of the accusation but was required to report it under federal law.

The fourth student, now in his early 20s, learned of the $3 million settlement to the first lawsuit from news reports and contacted an attorney and later authorities in 2020, according to Thompson. He is suing Hays and the Gresham-Barlow School District for $3 million.

Gresham-Barlow settled lawsuits filed by the other two students for $425,000 and $365,000, Thompson said.

The four have shared lawyers, Thompson said, and attended each other’s civil court proceedings – creating a false “script.”

“They all have a playbook and they’re all going along with it,” Thompson said.

Hays was arrested March 11, 2021, and posted $50,000 bail three days later, court records show. He will remain out of custody during the trial.

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