A Multnomah County jury on Friday awarded $3 million to a 21-year-old woman who said the principal of her public elementary school sexually abused her in his office when she was in second, third and fourth grade.
Jurors found 11-1 that the young woman was molested more than a decade ago by Jeff Hays, who was principal of Deep Creek Elementary School in Damascus from 2005-2009. The school is a part of the Gresham-Barlow School District, which is responsible for paying the verdict.
“She’s trying to put the pieces of her life together, but it’s a greatly reduced life,” said one of her attorneys, Greg Kafoury. “If there’s one place on the planet where she should have been safe, anyone’s child should have been safe … it was her school, with the principal there.”
Jurors determined by a preponderance of evidence that Hays had molested the young woman when she was a child. That’s a lower threshold than the standard required in a criminal case — guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Kafoury and his son, attorney Jason Kafoury, said their client was relieved by the civil jury’s finding that the abuse occurred. She hopes it serves as a catalyst to push prosecutors to pursue criminal charges against Hays, they said.
Hays has not been charged in the case, although the statute of limitations hasn’t run out. Prosecutors couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.
The Kafourys told The Oregonian/OregonLive that the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Hays after their client and another girl who attended the Damascus school reported in 2016 that they had been abused. But according to the Kafourys, prosecutors have said they’re reviewing a more recent report from a male student from the same school and have indicated that it’s possible they could file criminal charges against Hays for all three alleged victims.
Unbeknownst to jurors, the other female student settled last week with the school district for $425,000. She’s in her late teens now.
Hays most recently worked as a principal for City View Charter School in Hillsboro. In 2018, he “mutually” agreed to “separate” from the school, according to minutes from a school board meeting.
During this week’s trial, the Kafourys said Hays summoned hundreds of students into his office using the Damascus school’s intercom for one-on-one math sessions. They said he’d close the blinds and shut the door, which was just steps from the school’s two secretaries.
The 21-year-old woman told jurors that Hays molested her from ages 7 to 9. She said she’d tried to put her feelings in “a box” so she wouldn’t have to deal with them, but she couldn’t escape the trauma.
She said she had once been a happy child eager to learn. “I always wanted to be the best,” she said.
Jurors watched a video of her reciting all of the state capitals in the U.S. at age 3. By second grade, she told jurors she was reading at a seventh-grade level. That was the same year Hays began to sexually abuse her in his office, she said.
As a third grader she pleaded with her mom to cut her hair shorter and shorter, so it was the same length as her brothers’. When she was 16, she said she had her first sexual experience and left in tears. She said from then on more problems began to surface. She developed bulimia and depression, and she contemplated suicide, once stopping herself before she carried out a plan to jump off a cliff in the Columbia River Gorge, she testified.
“She went from straight As,” said Jason Kafoury, summing up the woman’s early years, “to flunking out of college.”
The woman said memories about the unidentified source of her trauma came flooding back in 2016 after a childhood friend called to tell her that she had been sexually abused by Hays and was reporting it to police.
The woman said she spent the coming days and weeks waking up from nightmares in a cold sweat and sometimes vomiting. She ultimately told her parents and wrote down her memories in a statement later given to police.
“He liked when I wore my black pants because they were stretchy and easy to access down to my crotch,” she said in the statement. “He would tell me that I was in trouble, that I have to stay quiet or else my parents will find out I’m bad.”
She wrote that “he would tell me that it’s punishment. I never knew what I was being punished for. This happened multiple times.”
Kim Hoyt, a lawyer for the school district, argued that the woman hadn’t proven her life’s problems stemmed from sex abuse. By far, Hoyt said, not every person who has bulimia and depression has suffered sexual abuse.
There could be other triggers, Hoyt said, pointing to the woman’s testimony that during her sophomore year she was deeply affected by a boyfriend’s thoughtless comments that she needed to lose weight. By college, the woman was spending lots of time with friends and drinking alcohol, like many freshman do, Hoyt said.
Hoyt also questioned whether the young woman’s memories of sexual abuse were real. Before the phone call from her childhood friend, she “had no memory of ever being touched by Mr. Hays,” Hoyt said.
The Kafourys called six witnesses — two former students and four adults — who said they saw Hays one-on-one with students in his office with a closed door. One of those adults was the school’s booster club president, who said she loudly confronted Hays about how inappropriate it was for him to spend time alone with students in his office.
Hays had denied to a Clackamas County police detective that he would ever be alone behind closed doors with a child because that could raise concerns about sexual grooming of children, the Kafourys said in their closing arguments to the jury.
After the verdict, a juror said the most time consuming part of the deliberations was not whether the woman had been sexually abused, but how much money to award her.
A spokeswoman for the school district said Friday that the district respects the jury’s verdict but is evaluating whether it will appeal.
“The Gresham-Barlow School District is committed to the safe education of its students and will continue our efforts to safely guide students through their education,” Athena Vadnais said in an email.