On June 8, a former Rio Rico High School student filed a notice of claim against the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District, detailing years of sexual abuse and harassment from former teacher Joseph Edward Ellison.
The notice of claim – the first step in a lawsuit against the district – was not filed against Ellison himself, who’d already pleaded guilty to two criminal assault charges in 2022. Instead, the claim placed additional blame on SCVUSD leadership, alleging that district administrators had failed their duty as mandated reporters, enabling Ellison’s actions.
“(A)round 15 to 20 students came forward to (staff) about Ellison,” the notice said. “In short, the district had actual notice of Ellison’s dangers, but did nothing to stop them.”
The notice of claim, filed by Cadigan Law Firm in Tucson, does not name any specific employees who failed to report Ellison, who’d worked four years total at RRHS. The claim, however, highlights the legal duty of mandatory reporters – a class of Arizona residents who are legally required to report any reasonable belief that a minor is, or has been, a victim of abuse.
Mandated reporters include a variety of professions, ranging from school staff to medical personnel and police officers.
“If I work at a school, I see something that, I as a reasonable person, believe that child is being harmed, I have to report that,” said Marie Fordney, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Southern Arizona.
The center conducts medical evaluations, forensic interviews and, among other services, holds training sessions for mandatory reporters.
“When you’re a mandatory reporter, it doesn’t just mean you should. It means … you’re required to,” she added.
If a mandatory reporter fails to communicate a claim of suspicion or abuse, they could be held liable in civil or even criminal court, Fordney said.
Fordney urged mandatory reporters to make the necessary call – first to law enforcement, and then to the Department of Child Safety – if they believe a child or adolescent is facing some form of danger.
“You might be the only person who recognizes what you’re seeing. And so you could be that child’s only advocate,” she said.
Fordney stressed that reporting a suspicion that turns out to be nothing – a misunderstanding, for example – would still have benefits.
“At least you’re getting to the bottom of (the suspicion), and that child knows that you’re listening to them,” she said.
Still, research from number of sources – including the National Children’s Advocacy Center – show it’s generally rare for children to make up allegations of sexual abuse in particular.
“They don’t make up things like this,” Fordney said. “If they say something, you should start by believing.”
There are a number of signals, Fordney said, that a child could be experiencing abuse, whether it be physical, sexual, emotional or neglect.
“They often mirror what you would see in a child who’s depressed,” she said.
Some children, she said, might stop bathing or practicing regular hygiene; others, Fordney added, might become hyper-aware of how they dress and look.
“When you see a shift in the way that child normally behaves, that can be a sign that something bad is happening. And you can just ask them what happened. You don’t want to ask a lot of questions, but you can ask them what happened,” she added.
In a separate case at Rio Rico High School, a staff member told law enforcement she witnessed the abuse happening in real time.
The RRHS staff member – a mandatory reporter – told a Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office detective that in late November 2022, a student with special needs had arrived at the school and was having a “tough morning.”
Ana Castro, who’d been working as a paraprofessional at the time, allegedly grabbed the student, moved him and twisted his ear, making him cry “very hard,” the witness told the detective.
Later that day, Castro allegedly began poking the student in his face and eyes, the witness said. And, the same day, Castro allegedly struck the student on his leg with the ruler. According to court records, the staff member reported the incidents hours after they allegedly occurred; two days later, Castro was placed on administrative leave by then-Principal Hector Estrada.
Castro has since defended her actions, claiming that she did not remember striking the student with a ruler and that she’d poked the child to assist with his sensory issues – something the student’s mother denies would have helped her son, according to an interview with county investigators.
About a month after she was placed on leave, Castro resigned from the district, and by March, she’d been arraigned in Nogales Justice Court on one count of child abuse.
Once a call is made to law enforcement or DCS, Fordney said, progress can seem slow in investigating the abuse. In some cases, she pointed out, a case might not move forward at all. But, she said, making the report increases the chances of action being taken, as it allows investigators to piece together potential evidence.
“If you make a call and then a week later somebody different makes a call, and a week later somebody else makes a call,” she said, “even if those sound like not very big instances individually, once they’re put together then it gives the investigators a more complete picture of what’s happening.”
According to the June 8 notice of claim against SCVUSD, the plaintiff, a former student, had raised concerns with administrators about “five to seven times” regarding Ellison, the former drama teacher at RRHS.
“But each time, his claims were ignored,” attorneys stated.
“Instead,” the notice continued, “Rio Rico High School staff told (the student) that he needed to ‘grow up’ – doing nothing to protect (the student) from his unrelenting abuse.”
Ultimately, the notice alleges, the plaintiff endured 2.5 years of abuse. During those years, Ellison allegedly groped the student, made sexual comments about him and, at one point, “insist(ed)” on the student undressing in front of him.
The student, according to the notice, developed severe depression, suicidal ideation and dropped out of high school altogether.
And in a case filed at Santa Cruz County Superior Court, six different RRHS students made statements to law enforcement, describing incidents of “biting, licking, hugging and inappropriate behavior” from Ellison.
Speaking during a court hearing, the parent of another student described emotional trauma his daughter had experienced through Ellison’s abuse.
“And I don’t know how many more years my daughter has to suffer for what she had to go through,” the parent said through a court interpreter.
Many elements of the Ellison case remain unclear, including whether SCVUSD will settle with the plaintiff over the allegations of failed reports. The notice of claim called for a settlement of $150,000; the deadline to settle, according to attorney Lynne Cadigan, is set for this week.
If the district does not choose to settle, the civil suit will go to court.
Speaking about the Ellison case, Fordney stressed the importance of reporting suspected abuse as soon as possible – particularly when the alleged abuser could have “access” to many children. An abusive teacher, she pointed out, could be inflicting the abuse on multiple children over a long period of time.
“The sooner you can stop that, the more kids you prevent that from happening to,” she said. “You’re literally saving kids.”