EXCLUSIVE: Court papers allege principal tried to cover up sex assault scandal

Published: Jun. 14, 2016 at 2:35 AM HST|Updated: Jun. 14, 2016 at 3:52 PM HST
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Sydney Dickerson (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Sydney Dickerson (Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - For nearly a decade, Sydney Dickerson was the principal for the Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind. It was under her watch that dozens of students were robbed, raped and even gang raped by other students

State taxpayers wound up paying $5.75 million to settle lawsuits linked to the violence, and five students were convicted as minors on sex assault charges.

Now, new court records obtained by Hawaii News Now show that school staffers and contractors had asked Dickerson at least half a dozen times since 2006 to investigate sex assault allegations.

They alleged that Dickerson either didn't look into them or didn't report the allegations to law enforcement.

"Frankly, we're at a point where there ought to be criminal investigations because they're covering up misconduct and they're doing it deliberately for their own purposes," said attorney Eric Seitz, who represented several victims who sued in 2011.

The newly-released court records include statements from more than a dozen staffers and contractors interviewed by private investigator Matt Levi, who was hired by the Department of Education to investigate the allegations.

One of the staffers told Levi that she witnessed a male student forcing a girl to perform oral sex on the stairs of Building C on school grounds.

"I really believe the school should have called the police ... and I don't understand why the boy wasn't kicked out," educational assistant Leann Quarto told Levi, according to the court documents.

The documents show Gwen Chun, an administrative services assistant at the school, said she once asked Dickerson about an incident in 2009 when police were called on campus.

"She just said, 'Keep it confidential, it was just (oral sex)," Chun said.

District Supervisor Calvin Nomiyama, Dickerson's boss, said in the court documents that her failure to report the allegations damaged many lives.

"We will never know how much of that victimization could have been prevented, or would never have occurred had Principal Dickerson followed the rules she pledged ... to uphold," said Nomiyama, according to the documents.

Nomiyama also said he only became aware of how widespread the problem was when Honolulu police detectives contacted him in July 2011, after a student was arrested for sexually assaulting another classmate on a school bus.

"The detectives told me that their investigation indicated that these assaults had gone on for years," Nomiyama said, in the documents. "They went on to describe how they believed the suspect was the ringleader of a group of HSDB student sexual predators. They estimated there were five suspects responsible for sexual assaults involving possibly 35 victims."

Hawaii News Now had initially requested copies of Levi's report back in 2013, but DOE officials withheld them on the grounds their release would warrant an invasion of privacy, are part of pending litigation and would frustrate a government function.

But the records were made public in a separate lawsuit in which a former Deaf and Blind School student alleged she was also sexually assaulted at McKinley High School. Her attorneys, Eric Ferrer and Susan Dorsey, have alleged that there's a widespread practice within the DOE of not reporting sex assault cases.

Levi's report shows that several staffers at the Deaf and Blind School and the DOE felt Dickerson tried to hide the abuse to protect her image.

Roxsanne Tomita, a clinical social worker contracted by the DOE, recalled that in 2011 she told Dickerson that one of her female students "had been sexually assaulted by (a male) student on four separate occasions ... on the school bus."

"(Dickerson) said, 'Don't call the police," said Tomita, who wound up calling the student's parents and the police anyway.

"My biggest concern about Sydney's role in this is that she did not appreciate the seriousness of the problem," Tomita added.

When questioned by Levi, Dickerson said the reporting requirements weren't a priority, the documents show.

"With all my responsibilities at HSDB including budget, facilities, the boarding program ...  learning Chapter 19 (the student code of conduct) was not a front-burner issue," she said.

Dickerson no longer works for the DOE, and could not be reached for comment. The DOE declined comment when asked if she was fired.

She's currently employed by Kapiolani Community College as a student support specialist. University of Hawaii officials say her duties are largely administrative and that she has limited contact with students.

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