The Issaquah School District this week agreed to a $4.25 million settlement in a lawsuit that accuses a former middle school teacher of sexually assaulting one of his students for nearly a decade.
According to the lawsuit, drama teacher Richard Buckley started “grooming” Courtney Dennis, now 36, when she was about 12 years old in the late 1990s, though he had allegedly been interacting inappropriately with female students at Issaquah Middle School for years.
Buckley was never criminally charged, and the statute of limitations has elapsed. In 2003, he was convicted of molesting Dennis’s younger sister.
“I’m glad it’s over, but it’s also almost just beginning in really dealing with it and addressing the trauma of it,” Dennis said in an interview Friday. “But I’m so thankful to (my attorneys) — they fought so hard to seek justice for my family and I.”
Filing the lawsuit, she said, has been an important part of her healing process.
“This settlement is one of the largest school district settlements that I’m remembering,” said Darrell Cochran, one of the attorneys representing Dennis with Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala PLLC. “It’s indicative that the Issaquah School District recognized how badly it behaved and how badly Courtney was injured. It should help school districts all over the state take notice that when you make a mistake like this, you’re going to be held accountable.”
The settlement — which the district said would be covered by its insurer — came about a week and a half before the case was scheduled to go to trial, Cochran said.
“The case arose based off of circumstances that happened in the district decades ago,” the Issaquah School District said in a statement Friday afternoon. “The decision to settle was made considering a number of factors, including providing compensation for a severe breach of trust by a teacher at the time.”
It continued: “While Issaquah School District denies any negligence by the district, we acknowledge that settling is a better solution for everyone involved. Regardless of the lawsuit and the legal process, the district condemns, in the strongest sense, any abuse of a minor.”
The suit also names Janet Barry as a defendant, the district superintendent at the time. Barry is currently seeking to dismiss herself as an individually named defendant because she was an employee of the district, the lawsuit says.
However, “because the District is not technically required to report allegations of abuse under Washington law, Janet Barry as a named individual defendant is necessary for (Dennis) to pursue a negligence claim for failing to report child sex abuse information in a timely manner,” the lawsuit says.
According to the suit, Buckley was hired in 1992 and would often give female students rides home in his car, hold group meetings with students at his house without other adults present and stay late with them after school, sometimes past dinnertime.
When teachers and parents complained to the district, the lawsuit says, officials disregarded the concerns because Buckley had “curried favor and protection from the administrators as a ‘talented’ teacher who was destined to take the drama department to great heights.”
When Buckley met Dennis, her parents were in the middle of a tough divorce, and he “recognized the weakness in the avenue of access to (her and her sister),” Cochran said. In early 1998, Buckley started driving Dennis and her younger sister home from school almost every day, the lawsuit says.
One evening, after Dennis’ sister fell asleep at Buckley’s house, he began kissing Dennis, taking her clothes off and sexually assaulting her, according to the lawsuit. He allegedly continued to assault her before, during and after school, the lawsuit says.
According to Dennis’ attorneys, the district’s administration was aware of Buckley’s conduct with Dennis and other female students and would issue written reprimands, but over the long term “Buckley continued the inappropriate behavior.”
He eventually resigned from the middle school in June 2000, although the suit says he was given a “glowing” letter of recommendation and was hired by the Orcas Island School District shortly after.
He later taught in the Renton School District, and resigned from his position as a language-arts teacher on Jan. 15, 2003, for “personal health reasons,” according to a district spokesman. Buckley voluntarily surrendered his teaching certificates in February 2003.
In September 2003, Buckley was convicted of first-degree child molestation of Dennis’ younger sister, who was 10 at the time, and was sentenced to 4-and-a-half years to life in prison, The Seattle Times reported at the time. He ended up serving about seven years before being released, and is now living in Renton, Cochran said.
“The enduring danger in a case like this highlights that school districts continue to refuse to believe they have child rapists in their ranks and want to explain all the warning signs away as something innocent and good,” Cochran said.
Efforts to reach Buckley were unsuccessful.
Dennis said she has been a stay-at-home mom all these years, and now lives in Maple Valley with her husband and two sons — 14 and 12. She decided to pursue legal action against the school district after her oldest son turned 13, she said.
“(My boys) are so wonderful and (seeing) the innocence they both have … it kind of triggered something inside of me that I lost all that,” she said. “It was robbed. It was taken from me by an abuser. He never should have been a teacher, and the district never should have hired him. There were so many warning signs that everyone ignored or made excuses for.”
It’s been an overwhelming, “whirlwind” process, she said. And looking back, she wishes schools implemented lessons for young students about how to spot the signs of grooming by educators or adults with authority.
“But I hope even if just one person hears my story … (that they know) there’s hope out there,” Dennis said.
Corrections: The original version of this story had an incorrect age for Courtney Dennis. It was updated March 27, 2021, to say she is now 36.