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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tahoma School District settles sexual abuse lawsuit for $3.9 million

By Monica Velez Seattle Times

The Tahoma School District has settled a sexual abuse lawsuit for $3.9 million after admitting it was negligent in continuing to employ a former paraeducator after reports he was allegedly sexually abusing and grooming students.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a student January 2022 in King County Superior Court, alleges that the student was sexually abused when he was between 5 and 7 years old by paraeducator Bryan Neyers while he was working in Tahoma Elementary School’s Early Enrichment Program. The alleged sexual abuse occurred between 2018 and 2020. Neyers is facing child rape and molestation charges involving three young boys, as well as first-degree rape charges involving a fourth child.

Neyers began working in the enrichment program in 2015. The following year, the Maple Valley school district started to receive reports about Neyers exhibiting concerning behavior and a lack of boundaries with students, said Steven Reich, one of the Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala PLLC attorneys representing the student. School officials met with Neyers in June 2018 – months before the student started school – about the alleged grooming behavior and abuse.

“On his first day of kindergarten, I picked him up and I said, ‘What was the best (part) of school?’ And he said, ‘Playing with Bryan after school,’” the boy’s mother, K.C., said. “He really was grooming him from day one.” (The Seattle Times is using the mother’s initials to avoid identifying her son.)

Neyers was placed on administrative leave in April 2020 and was terminated the next month, said AJ Garcia, spokesperson for Tahoma. He said the district’s “foremost priority is to provide a safe and positive educational experience for all its students.”

The student told his mother about the alleged abuse in 2020 when he was 7 after others came forward with reports of sexual abuse. At least four boys have accused Neyers of abuse, the earliest case allegedly occurring in 2014.

Neyers has been charged with first-degree rape of a child and first-degree child molestation, according to court filings. He was arrested in April 2020 and awaits trial Sept. 5.

Neyers’ attorney in the criminal case, Heather Weir, declined to comment.

Reich said one of the unusual aspects of the lawsuit was that “very early on, the school district admitted its fault, admitted it had made a mistake.”

The Tahoma district acknowledged it didn’t take steps to keep the student safe from Neyers, Reich said, which is rare and the reason the lawsuit was settled quickly. Usually, both parties go through lengthy litigations before facts are uncovered, he said.

Neyers texted with students, held several on his lap and had thousands of photos of students on his personal computer, according to the lawsuit. There was one instance where a principal overheard him telling a student a rhyme about a sex act, according to the lawsuit.

The $3.9 million settlement is a reflection of the mental health impacts the alleged abuse had on the student, Reich said.

But K.C. said no amount of money could compensate for the damage to her son’s mental health. He was diagnosed with PTSD, has had thoughts about wanting to die and is going to therapy, she said. When classes resumed in person, her son started having nightmares about being abused on school property that are still occurring, she said.

“He would walk by the school cafeteria and have a flashback,” K.C. said. “He is getting better, but I think this is going to impact his life, in some capacity, going forward for the rest of his life.”

K.C. said she also had nightmares and sleep issues. The abuse has also caused financial stress. Because Neyers lived close by, she said, she and her family had to move.

“It was a living nightmare,” K.C. said.

She said it’s been challenging for her to trust adults in school and summer day programs, and she’s more hypervigilant of people’s motives. However, she said she still believes there are good people working in schools and wants to see either district or statewide policies that make officials do more thorough investigations into educators accused of grooming.

Garcia, the Tahoma spokesperson, said the district has revisited some of its policies, procedures and trainings. The district requires background checks through the State Patrol criminal identification system and the FBI. Every person applying for a position is required to sign a release form allowing the district to contact former school employers regarding prior sexual misconduct. All staffers also receive annual training in sexual misconduct.

“The District takes any allegation of abuse and sexual misconduct seriously and fully investigates any allegation,” Garcia said. “Tahoma School District and all its staff remain committed to fostering a safe educational environment for all students.

But K.C. said she believes the district owes her son and her an apology.

“Money is one thing, but an apology of sincerely how this has affected our lives … it’s been exhausting and we deserve an apology,” she said.

An apology would help her son know that it wasn’t his fault, K.C. said. “He takes some of the onus on himself.”