The Lafayette School District Monday announced a $725,000 settlement agreement with the child victim of former Stanley Middle School teacher Michael Merrick as a new dialogue on what, if any, restrictions should be placed on telephonic conversations between adults and children began to surface.
Questions about the level of contact adult teachers, coaches, and instructors should have with those under their tutelage has heated up since it was learned that several local molestation cases, including Merrick's, were furthered by unsupervised contact between the adult and child via phone or social media.
"It's a great question and one that needs to be asked more," said Steve DeWarns, a Danville resident and nationally recognized expert on the subject of cyber security. "It really is a matter of common sense, but with young teachers growing up with social media and comfortable communicating with others in that way - including their students - you're opening the door to all kinds of potential abuse."
DeWarns said he was aware of the Merrick case and others that have ripped Lamorinda and Walnut Creek asunder in recent months, including the most recent instance in Walnut Creek where an acting coach is alleged to have initiated contact with his victims via phone and social media. He had not heard of the now infamous case of Kristen Cunnane, whose abuser went so far as to give the Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School student a "secret cell phone" and instructed her to hide it in a hollowed-out dictionary.
"That is just classic predatory behavior and obviously demonstrates how hard it is to monitor this problem," DeWarns said.
Photo: An early photo of Michael Merrick
Merrick ultimately pleaded guilty to six felony counts and was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison after admitting to letting a relationship with a 14-year-old girl "get out of hand" during private tutoring sessions on school property. Investigators determined that the teacher had sent hundreds of text messages to the victim and eventually initiated a physical relationship with her.
"As a District, and as individuals, we are deeply sorry for what happened to the victim in this case,” Lafayette School District Superintendent Fred Brill wrote in a release Monday. “Someone we trusted as a teacher betrayed that trust and abused a child. His crimes have caused the victim a great deal of pain and have damaged our community."
News24/680 has contacted the district to ask its policy regarding telephonic contact between students and teachers, and we will append this story with that response when we get it.
But under the terms of the agreement announced Monday, the district's insurance pool will cover the $725,000 settlement payment with none of the money coming from the district's general fund. District services will not be impacted by the settlement, Brill said in a release.
With recent court approval of the settlement agreement, a lawsuit filed on behalf of Merrick's victim was dismissed. The complaint against Superintendent Brill and Stanley Middle School Principal David Schrag was dismissed by the plaintiff several months ago.