LOS ANGELES — The complaints about the drama teacher’s husband and his behavior with female students at Mission Viejo High School spanned more than two decades.

In early 2001, a woman told school officials that Jim Harris had sexually assaulted her when she was a student. Her father had already complained about Harris five years earlier.

Another former student reported that Harris groped her, massaged her back beneath her shirt and kept photos of her and the other former student in swimsuits.

Only when the two women contacted the school again, in 2005, did Harris lose his job as a substitute teacher, and later, his substitute teaching permit.

But he continued to interact with Mission Viejo students, working closely with his wife, Kathy Cannarozzi-Harris, on the school’s vaunted theater productions, even after parents complained in 2016 that he was photographing girls in a dressing room.

A generation of these complaints culminated Wednesday in a lawsuit by the two former students who first reported his behavior in 2001.

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In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, they described the lawsuit as a last-ditch attempt to force the Saddleback Valley Unified School District to take their concerns seriously and bar Harris from contact with teenagers.

The lawsuit accuses Harris of grooming them — building their trust and welcoming them into his home — before touching them inappropriately in the mid-1990s.

The lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, alleges that school and district officials “actively turned a blind eye to multiple reports of misconduct,” failed to report Harris to authorities and, in one case, blamed “the student instead of the offending teachers.”

Despite the pattern of complaints, Harris continued to have access to teenagers through his position as a district substitute teacher and through his wife, a well-known figure in Orange County theater circles, the lawsuit said.

Cannarozzi-Harris witnessed some of the inappropriate behavior but did not intervene or contact authorities, the lawsuit said.

“I felt so powerless,” said Yara Wilde, 42, one of the former students who filed the lawsuit. “There was the initial trauma, but then every single time I came forward, it was awful and disempowering.”

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The second former student is not named in the complaint. The L.A. Times generally does not identify people who have reported being victims of sexual assault.

Since the summer and fall of 2021, Saddleback Valley Unified School District has been investigating “current allegations” involving the couple’s behavior, said spokeswoman Wendie Hauschild. She said Cannarozzi-Harris has not been on the Mission Viejo campus during the probe but did not say whether she is on leave or whether she is still the district’s visual and performing arts coordinator.

Hauschild said they received some “allegations against Mr. Harris that were previously investigated and addressed by the district in the past.” She declined to provide further information, citing “the confidentiality of personnel matters.”

In an interview with the L.A. Times, Harris denied ever sexually assaulting or inappropriately touching students.

He said he has participated in children’s theater at the Laguna Playhouse and traveled to schools for drama, “and there was never, ever an issue with anything, with anybody, except for this young lady,” Harris said, referring to Wilde.

“She seemed to have a very vivid imagination,” Harris said. “And because of that, it’s now affecting our lives, and it’s really a shame. It’s really unfortunate because we did nothing wrong.”

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Cannarozzi-Harris confirmed she was still employed with the district but said she would prefer to have a lawyer make a statement on her behalf.

The lawsuit was filed under a California law that opened a three-year window for victims of childhood abuse to sue when the statute of limitations has already expired.

Wilde and the other plaintiff are seeking unspecified damages against Harris, Cannarozzi-Harris and the school district.

“Every step that we’ve taken along the way, we hoped, ‘It’s finally taken care of, and we don’t have to deal with it anymore,’” said the second plaintiff, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the allegations. “… We tried to put a stop to it, and no one has wanted to listen to us — or they’ve just chosen to put the program above the experiences of the students.”

Wilde enrolled at Mission Viejo in 1994 and fell in love with drama, participating in every play and musical she could. She spent lunches in the drama room, where Harris was often working on sets, the lawsuit said.

She and the other student began going to the movies and the beach with Harris and Cannarozzi-Harris and spending time at their house.

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Mission Viejo’s award-winning drama program is a draw for students interested in the arts. Parents have been known to request a transfer so their children can perform there. Harris was a fixture at rehearsals and shows.

Harris gave Wilde back rubs in school, sometimes touching her stomach and her breasts under her shirt, according to the lawsuit. When Cannarozzi-Harris saw the touching, the lawsuit said, she would look at Wilde and Harris “in disgust” or “would shake her head and leave the room, allowing Jim to continue the assault.”

Wilde moved into the Harris’ home for three weeks during the spring of her sophomore year, where the abuse escalated, the lawsuit said.

Harris spent hours on the bed in the guest bedroom with Wilde, massaging her, asking about her sex life and talking about his own, the complaint said. Cannarozzi-Harris was “fully aware of what was taking place, as she would often call for Jim to return to the marital bedroom,” the lawsuit said.

One night when they were watching a movie, Cannarozzi-Harris had fallen asleep, and Wilde was dozing off, when Harris began massaging her, the lawsuit said. She kept her eyes closed but shifted, trying to push his hand away from her waistband.

“He pushed his hand into her pants and under her underwear,” the lawsuit said, and “digitally penetrated Yara as she was frozen in fear.”

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Wilde’s parents had struggled to understand why their daughter wasn’t applying herself in school and was defying their rules. Then, they discovered several handwritten letters from Harris.

In a six-page letter written in May 1996, Harris told Wilde that he would “have to settle for just being your friend.” In another, he said they were “meant to be together.” Copies of both letters were reviewed by the L.A. Times.

Wilde said her parents weren’t aware of the extent of the alleged abuse. Her father wrote to the school, questioning why Harris was allowed to interact with students and describing the relationship as “dangerous, abnormal and, to say the least, unprofessional.”

In response, the school drafted a contract barring Wilde from having contact with Harris, or with Cannarozzi-Harris outside of school. Any violation would result in Wilde being removed from the drama program, according to a copy of the contract, which was never signed.

Harris then turned his attentions to the second student, the lawsuit said. Harris began to isolate her in the drama room and give her massages, working his hands “under her clothes, around her waist, and up to her bra line.”

On a drama trip to London in 1998, Harris sat next to her on a bus, the lawsuit said. He began to caress her leg, the lawsuit said, and after she tried to push his hand away, he forcibly groped her thigh where it met her genital area.

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In 2001, the lawsuit said, the second plaintiff found a folder on Harris’ home computer with pornographic images as well as photos of both girls in swimsuits taken when they were 16.

After the second plaintiff contacted the school, the principal at the time, Marilyn McDowell, said in writing that Harris had been “overly physical” and “used poor judgment” in taking and keeping the swimsuit photos.

But, she wrote, Harris “adamantly” denied “any type of sexual intentions or behavior toward you and is devastated that you have now decided that he did not treat you appropriately.”

She said Harris would continue teaching and working for the drama program, “with the stipulation that student relationships are friendly but not physical.”

Wilde said she filed a report in 2002 with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. A deputy told her that Harris would not face criminal charges because the statute of limitations had expired.

She tried again in 2005, appealing to the school district’s head of personnel, according to the lawsuit. The 2001 complaint was reopened, and Harris was later fired from his substitute teaching position, the lawsuit said.

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The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing revoked Harris’ substitute teaching permit in 2007.

But Harris continued to be around students. At one point, he showed two students a “pornographic image of two young girls who looked to be minors, posing naked with their legs spread apart,” the lawsuit said.

Mission Viejo’s 2013 yearbook showed Harris posing with three female students. The following year, he chaperoned a drama program trip to New York City.

In 2016, a group of parents and a student filed a complaint with the school district against Cannarozzi-Harris and another drama teacher, alleging that they harassed and berated students and that Cannarozzi-Harris frequently left students unattended.

In response to a previous complaint from a parent, then-Principal Ray Gatfield said that Cannarozzi-Harris was not a “rookie” or “someone who does not know how to teach,” according to an email included in the parents’ complaint. He wrote: “You are talking about someone who has an award winning program and currently is coordinating the arts program for the entire district.”

The parents also alleged that Cannarozzi-Harris allowed her husband to “participate in inappropriate behaviors,” taking photos in the dressing room while girls were changing and at parties while students were in bathing suits.

Wilde said Harris’ alleged abuse prompted her to venture into victim advocacy. She has been working with the Alexandra Gucci Children’s Foundation and the Keep Kids Safe Movement to help prevent sexual violence against children and teens.

“I’m hoping that this will actually be validation that will help me heal,” Wilde said of the lawsuit. “Yes, people were listening. Yes, this is real. Yes, this happened. And no, it’s not OK. And they are going to have to have some consequences.”