A decade later, major settlement reached in Sacramento elementary school sex abuse case

In Classroom 27 at Sacramento’s Mark Twain Elementary School, after-school aide Joshua Rolando Vasquez brought in a secret box of candy and chips, whipped cream and a refrigerator, and blindfolds and a handheld Sony video camera.

He covered the room’s windows with black trash bags from 2013 through 2016, eventually leading to school officials asking why.

“And it’s a revolving door of excuses,” attorney Joe George Jr. said. “It’s for a movie day.

“Well, we take them up or down. It’s to keep the sun out.

“It’s for a haunted house.”

The reality was much more horrifying: a sophisticated plan by a sexual predator to groom and abuse at least eight elementary school children as young as 7 in that classroom before he was caught and sent to prison.

Now, with Vasquez’s victims facing a lifetime of pain dealing with what he did to them, the bill has come due for the city of Sacramento and the Sacramento City Unified School District: more than $52 million to settle lawsuits alleging negligence by officials who ignored repeated warning signs about Vasquez.

Joshua Rolando Vasquez pleaded guilty in 2016 to sexually abusing children while he worked at Mark Twain Elementary School in Sacramento. He was sentenced to 150 years to life in prison.

A settlement agreement finalized last week calls for the city and district to pay out a total of $40 million for five of the victims, with the city paying about 60% of that amount and the district the rest. A previous settlement agreement for a sixth victim resulted in a $12.5 million payout.

As part of the settlement, the city also provided one-page letters to the victims lauding their “courage in coming forward as to the child abuse you suffered at the hands of Joshua Vasquez while he was our employee.”

“Please accept our sincere apologies for what you suffered due to Vasquez’s conduct and we hope our settlement of this matter will help you in your efforts to heal from this horrible and most regrettable experience at the hands of our former employee,” said the letter, signed by Jackie Beecham, the city’s director of youth, parks and community enrichment.

A lifetime of pain

The girls abused by Vasquez and their families will be living with the consequences of what he did for years, their lawyers say.

“These children are going to be living with what has been imprinted into their hard drive, into their brain, the mistrust of adults and the violation that they didn’t even know could happen,” said Roger Dreyer, who fought the cases through court to settlement along with George and attorney Noemi Esparza.

Attorneys Noemi Nunez Esparza, Roger Dreyer and Joe George Jr. talk about the $52.5 million settlement stemming from years of abuse of five children by an after-school teacher in Sacramento, Tuesday, May 16, 2023.

City spokesman Tim Swanson issued a statement Thursday acknowledging the gravity of what Vasquez did.

“Joshua Vasquez used his position of trust to prey on innocent children and commit sickening crimes against them,” Swanson’s statement said. “For that, he has been sentenced to life in prison.

“The city of Sacramento expresses its deepest sympathies to the victims and their families for the pain and trauma they have suffered and remains committed to doing everything it can to prevent anything like this from happening again.”

The school district issued a similar statement.

“The Sacramento City Unified School District treats student and staff safety as its highest priority and is committed to making any changes that are necessary for their protection and well-being,” the emailed statement read. “In addition, the district offers its deepest sympathy to the victims of these despicable crimes and will continue to support their well-being as possible.

“Since these cases were first brought to light, the district in 2020 implemented a series of policy and procedure changes, including additional sexual abuse and mandated reporter training for staff; stricter requirements for how and when a staff member can be alone with students; and changes to our policy when a staff member is accused of sexual misconduct. More recently, the district has taken further steps and retained an expert consultant to review our policies and procedures in an ongoing effort to train staff and remain vigilant in identifying and handling sexual offenders.”

Sex abuse cases cost schools hundreds of millions

Sexual abuse claims against school employees have been made for decades.

But in recent years the ability to pursue such claims has been bolstered by new state laws — including in California — that allow for a window of time for former students who are now adults to file civil actions against abusers, even if the statute of limitations for criminal penalties has passed.

Those laws, along with a greater focus on the damage caused by abusers and school officials that fail to prevent such cases, have resulted in dramatic increases in settlement amounts in recent years.

The Sacramento City Unified School District has agreed to pay more than $52 million to settle lawsuits stemming from years of sexual abuse of five children by an after-school teacher at Mark Twain Elementary School.

One study issued in February found that 20% of all payouts by K-12 schools and higher education institutions stem from sexual abuse claims and that the costs of all types of losses by schools because of legal actions have increased dramatically.

That study by United Educators, which offers risk management and insurance programs, found 69 damage awards and settlements of at least $1 million in 2022, compared to 38 in the previous year.

Some of the largest reported publicly involve sexual misconduct claims, including nearly $700 million in settlements to pay victims of former UCLA gynecologist James Heaps, and $1.1 billion in payments to victims of ex-University of Southern California gynecologist George Tyndall, reportedly the largest sexual abuse payout in history by a university.

Payouts force schools to reassess failures

Dreyer, a prominent personal injury attorney who has won huge jury awards and settlements for clients over the years, said the amount of the Vasquez settlement may be large, but that it is paid by insurance and does not affect the ability of the school or the city to provide services to students.

Instead, he said, such awards drive home the point that officials in charge failed in their duty to protect children.

“The financial numbers that get paid out on these cases get misunderstood by the general public,” he said. “They see the numbers because they’re significant and they think there’s a negative impact on the schools or their children.

“But a case like this has a tremendous overall effect to the educational and academic industry that they have to do a better job of training their people to be mindful that this can happen, and be on the alert for it so they stop it.

“If Vasquez had been busted on this, if he had been talked to, if he knew that he didn’t have this opportunity, then it doesn’t happen or he goes somewhere else.”

Red flags missed, complaints from parents ignored

The lawyers contend Vasquez was able to abuse children for as long as he did because officials ignored clear warning signs, as well as complaints from parents.

And Vasquez himself conceded in depositions from prison that he did not start abusing children until he got to Mark Twain because he did not have the chance, Esparza said.

“I asked him had he had jobs before where he was exposed to children, and he had worked at a recreational place where there’s kids,” Esparza said. “And I asked him, had you ever thought about abusing before?”

Vasquez told her he had had such thoughts, but had not acted on them, Esparza said.

The Sacramento City Unified School District has agreed to pay more than $52 million to settle lawsuits stemming from years of sexual abuse of five children by an after-school teacher at Mark Twain Elementary School.

“He said, ‘Because I wasn’t provided the opportunity, I couldn’t have done it there,’” she said.

“So this goes to the school district. They provided him the opportunity to do it because they didn’t question anything.”

Vazquez began working for the city’s START program in 2007 and was one of six program leaders at Mark Twain, which has about 250 students, more than half of them Hispanic. The program offered an after-school program for about 85 students until 6 p.m.

Vasquez also began part-time work for the school district in 2010 as a yard duty worker and cafeteria supervisor, court documents say, and eventually was given access and a key to Room 27.

Candy and a ‘secret place’

The first sign of trouble came in October 2014, when a parent complained to Principal Rosario Guillen-Jovel that Vasquez had given her child candy and had “a secret place and a prize box” for students who were “helping out,” court documents say.

The principal responded by telling Vasquez not to hand out candy or offer a reward system for helping, court documents say.

Months later, some time between February and April 2015, another parent complained.

“So, a school parent is at her dining room table and her child has candy and in a mama bear kind of inquiry says, ‘Where’d you get the candy?’” George said. “And her daughter says, it’s a secret.”

Vasquez had told the girl, “Here’s candy, if you keep it a secret you can come back to my secret room and get more secret candy,” George said.

The mother called the principal the next day, complaining and wanting to know what is going on, George said.

“And the principal’s response is, ‘Don’t worry, I already told him not to do that anymore.’ ...

“And nothing was done month after month after month.”

A sophisticated plan to groom everyone

Over time, the lawyers say, Vasquez was able to “groom” not only the children but adults at the school, becoming a popular figure on campus as he tested the boundaries to see how far he could go.

“Like any skilled predator, he slowly, deliberately groomed everybody around him,” Dreyer said. “Both the adults and the children (began) gaining a comfort level and a feeling of safety...

“He grooms the adults to trust him, he grooms the children, becomes very popular. And as a result people just don’t think there’s anything he would do that’s problematic.”

Vasquez soon found he was trusted enough to act in ways that should have raised concerns and should have resulted in reports to police, the lawyers said.

“Vasquez would go into a room, a classroom during room school hours, and he would ask the teacher, ‘I’d like to take Student X out of the classroom and have this young lady — who’s 9 years old — help me set up for a dance or for an activity associated with START during school hours, not START hours,” Dreyer said. “And the teacher would say sure.”

Vasquez was so trusted that when the START site director at the school was removed from her job Vasquez was tapped to fill in as director until he finally was caught, court records say.

He began to do test runs, gauging whether he had enough time in a classroom to abuse a student, the lawyers said, using a handheld radio to determine where other adults on the campus were at the time.

“So he can lock the door and he figures out a plan when he can have children at the end of the day alone, or a couple of them, and he blindfolds them,” Dreyer said. “And he engages in acts that are heinous, blindfolds the children, says I want you to tell me what flavor this particular product is ...

“He turns off the lights, blindfolds them and then he covers his penis with whipped cream or with some kind of flavored drink and then puts it in the child’s mouth while they’re blindfolded.”

Vasquez would try other forms of abuse, often videotaping what he was doing with a camera he kept in the classroom, the lawyers said.

Caught when the blindfold slipped

He finally was caught in November 2015 after an 8-year-old girl he had blindfolded and was abusing looked underneath her blindfold and saw Vasquez’s penis, then told her aunt about it as the girl was being driven home from school.

The aunt called police, who arrested Vasquez and discovered the videos he had taken of some of the instances of abuse.

As word of his arrest spread, the mother who reported her concerns about Vasquez giving her daughter candy in spring of 2015 called the principal, who denied ever talking to her about such concerns, court documents say.

“Even if I had met with you, any unsubstantiated claims against my staff I destroy every year,” Jovel said, according to court documents.

Vasquez pleaded guilty in September 2016 and was sentenced to 150 years to life in prison. State prison records say Vasquez, now 39, is serving his time at Mule Creek State Prison near Ione.

He won’t be eligible for parole before November 2035, records say, with his first date for consulting with the parole board tentatively set for November 2030.

His victims, meanwhile, face a longer sentence.

“If you can think of all the key moments in a female’s life, right?” Esparza said. “Boyfriends, going to college, being in another school setting with male professors, getting married, having their own children, and the lack of trust about what’s going to happen with your child.

“So those are all things that the experts and therapists having treated other people that have been abused can say with certainty they’re going to be dealing with. This is not something that you can just take out of the brain and erase. It’s going to be there.”