Six former Colton High School football players in San Bernardino County are suing the Colton Joint Unified School District and its former athletic trainer, alleging that she sexually abused them more than a decade ago.
The men, referred to as John Does in the lawsuit filed Friday, allege that during the 2000s, when they were varsity football players, they were sexually abused by the school's athletic trainer, Tiffany Gordon. She is the daughter of the school's former head football coach and athletic director, Harold Strauss, who died in 2019. Gordon began working for the district around 2001 and most recently was the athletic director at Grand Terrace High School.
They also allege that other members of the football team, the players' parents and the staff knew about Gordon's alleged misconduct between 2002 and 2006 and that the school district failed to report and investigate the alleged abuse.
"Despite rampant rumors surrounding Gordon’s misconduct, CJUSD knowingly, intentionally, willfully, deliberately, negligently, and/or recklessly allowed Gordon to continue abusing Colton High School’s varsity football players, including plaintiffs," according to the lawsuit. "In doing so, defendants fostered a pervasive and hostile environment that utterly disregarded the rights and safety of minor athletes who were entrusted to CJUSD."
The district confirmed in a statement that Gordon has been placed on administrative leave and the district has made itself "completely available to the Colton Police Department."
"Although the current administrative team members were not in leadership roles with the district 20 years ago, the district leadership team is extremely concerned about the allegations being made," according to a district statement. "Our commitment is always to the safety and well-being of our students, families and staff, and we will work with local law enforcement to protect our community and lend our support to any victims in this case."
Gordon has been advised not to speak about the case, but Paul Wallin, senior partner for Wallin & Klarich and one of her attorneys if criminal charges are filed, emphasized that the allegations are from two decades ago and that no criminal charges have been filed.
"Our client has no criminal record of any nature and has been athletic director involved with students for over two decades with no allegations of wrongdoing ever been brought in all that time by any student," he said.
John Doe 7042, who began attending Colton in 2001 and joined the varsity football team that year, said he was sexually assaulted by Gordon when he sought treatment for injuries he suffered playing football. The abuse escalated weeks later, when he was allegedly raped by Gordon in the school's locker room while his teammates were at practice. The man claimed the abuse continued throughout the rest of his time at the school, detailing in the lawsuit places on campus where Gordon allegedly raped him, including bathrooms, the school's weight room, and a trailer.
Another accuser, John Doe 7047, joined the football team as a sophomore in the fall of 2000 and alleges in the lawsuit that he was also sexually abused by Gordon. When he was 16, he said, Gordon allegedly raped him for the first time and continued to do so through the rest of his high school career.
According to the lawsuit, John Doe 7043 transferred to the high school during his senior year in the fall of 2003, when he was 17. During the football season that year, Gordon allegedly made advances on the then-student, including inviting him on a date to a drive-in theater, where she sexually abused him in the back seat of the car. During a dinner at Strauss' house, John Doe 7043 said he witnessed Gordon leave the room with John Doe 7047, who later told him that Gordon had sexually abused him.
Another former student, identified in the lawsuit as John Doe 7044, said he had heard rumors his freshman year that Gordon was allegedly abusing students, according to the lawsuit. During his senior year, he allegedly confronted Gordon in a text about the rumors; in return, Gordon allegedly told him to send her pictures of his penis and sent him nude photographs of herself. She allegedly sexually assaulted him the next day in the locker room and the abuse continued throughout his senior year until he cut off contract with her.
“They really could’ve stopped it at any time,” he said an interview with The Times. “Everybody knew from when I stepped foot on Colton High that it was a rumor, so at the very least, they could’ve seen what this rumor was about. At no point did they ever step in to stop it.”
John Doe 7044 said he believes Gordon targeted him and the other alleged victims because they were particularly vulnerable, often needing rides home from school or money to buy food.
"I think the fact that we were a bunch of poor kids, nobody had the thought to protect us outside the football field," he said.
John Doe 7046 also alleges that he was sexually abused by Gordon while he was on the team. On Halloween in 2007, he alleged that Gordon was sexually abusing him in the locker room when Strauss interrupted them and asked why the lights were off. Gordon allegedly said that they were "just closing up and leaving." The alleged abuse continued throughout John Doe 7046's senior year.
He said the alleged abuse affected his relationships later on in life, especially when his own child reached high school.
“Every year, I was thinking there was more kids getting put in danger and more kids probably ending up like me and being touched and messed up,” he said. “I knew it was wrong then, but I was so young and as I got older, you see things as they really are.”
One of the men, John Doe 7045, also said that he disclosed to a coach that he and another student were thinking about telling the district about Gordon's alleged misconduct. The coach's wife then allegedly told him that Gordon would "likely blame the students for her misconduct" and school administrators wouldn't believe him because of Gordon's authority and status. The men didn't end up reporting the misconduct to the school, he said.
The lawsuit, filed in San Bernardino County Superior Court, was brought under Assembly Bill 218, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2020, and gave alleged victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to report allegations by extending the statute of limitations for civil claims. The statute of limitations for a criminal charge of statutory rape in California is one year for a misdemeanor offense and three years for a felony.
“In passing AB 218, California lawmakers recognized that it often takes years, or even decades, for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to come forward,” said Brian Williams, an attorney for Greenberg Gross LLP, representing the alleged victims. “This important law gives survivors of sexual abuse an opportunity to be heard and a chance to heal.”
The men said that they believed that the alleged abuse was "normal, and even lauded" because of the coaches' minimization of the assaults. They said that it "significantly affected and shaped the students' perceptions of intimacy, relationships and responsibilities at a young and impressionable age."
Ultimately, the men said they feel the school's coaches and other administrators failed to protect them and that a system should be put in place to help students report alleged misconduct.
“I felt like we couldn’t say anything. That our words wouldn’t have mattered,” John Doe 7046 said in an interview. “When I got older, I didn’t want my kid or anyone else’s kid to feel like how we felt — like we didn’t have a voice.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.