K-12 Education

Marion school district settles three sexual abuse lawsuits filed by Starry Elementary families for $1.8 million

Details of fourth settlement still to come

(File photo) Marion's Starry Elementary School.
(File photo) Marion’s Starry Elementary School.

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Marion Independent Community School District has paid parents of three Starry Elementary students $600,000 each to settle three lawsuits against the district and teacher Diane Graham for not preventing and protecting their children from sexual abuse in the classroom.        In a statement Tuesday, Marion Superintendent Chris Dyer said the district — upon advice from its insurance carrier, Employers Mutual Casualty Co., and its attorney — settled with parents of Starry students who filed their lawsuits in the wake of a case in which a former teenage classroom volunteer was found guilty of sexual abuse at the school.

Dyer forwarded the redacted settlements and his statement to The Gazette Tuesday morning.

The insurer negotiated settlements with the three families in exchange for a release of all claims against the district and Graham, 59, who remains on administrative leave, Dyer said in his statement. One of the families opted to spread the payment of the settlement over time through the use of an annuity, Dyer said. 

“Both the district and its insurance carrier believe it was in the best interests of the students and families involved, as well as the rest of the district’s students and staff, to resolve these cases now and avoid prolonged litigation,” Dyer said in the statement.

Dyer said the district will continue to have student and adult volunteers in the classroom. The district always had internal review processes for the volunteers, but the district “identified and implemented policy changes related to those procedures in December 2016,” he said.  

“The District always has and will continue to take seriously its responsibility under state and federal laws and board policy to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for its students,” Dyer said in the statement.

Dyer pointed to the district’s board policies that show an update for volunteers adopted in December 2016. It states all volunteers will be subject to the same screening procedures used in hiring regular school employees, which includes requiring references who will be contacted before the volunteer begins. The district may also request any previous criminal convictions, according to the policy.

The application for a student volunteer also includes questions as to whether the student has been convicted of a drug, sexual-related offense or act of violence and whether the student has been reported for “child abuse/sexual activities involving a student or minor” or had charges filed by a school district, police or court.

Attorneys for the families who sued the district didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.  

There is a pending fourth lawsuit filed by parents of another Starry Elementary student that has been settled, but details are not yet finalized. The district will release those details when the settlement is completed, Dyer said.   

Each of the four separate lawsuits filed in Linn County District Court show settlements were reached late in October but were not finalized until this month. The lawsuits were dismissed with prejudice Nov. 10, meaning they can’t be refiled by the parents. The Gazette requested details of the settlements in October, and at the time, Dyer said he couldn’t provide them until the negotiations were finalized.

Graham is charged with failing to report child sex abuse in her classroom as a mandatory reporter, a simple misdemeanor. Her trial is set for Jan. 8 in Tama County District Court. The trial was moved from Linn County based on extensive pretrial publicity.

A criminal complaint states two Starry Elementary students in Graham’s class, on two occasions, told Graham about sexual abuse incidents involving former classroom volunteer Logan McMurrin, who was 15 at the time of the abuse in 2016 and was convicted earlier this year in Linn County Juvenile Court of sexually abusing three children.

McMurrin, now 16, was convicted of three counts of second-degree sexual abuse against a 5-year-old and two 6-year-old girls. He was sentenced to the Iowa State Training School for Boys in Eldora. He will remain there at least until he is 18.

Graham failed to report the children’s disclosures to law enforcement or to the Department of Human Services personnel, according to the complaint.

As a teacher, Graham is a mandatory reporter of child abuse, according to Iowa law that requires any licensed school employee to report abuse against a child younger than age 12 within 24 hours.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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