A San Jose jury has awarded $102.5 million to two former middle school students who accused a music teacher of sexual assault, finding that the school district ignored previous allegations of the instructor’s inappropriate behavior.
The jury’s verdict on Wednesday in the civil lawsuit against the Union School District came after the panel heard evidence that Samuel Niepp sexually assaulted the girls between 2009 and 2017 at Dartmouth Middle School.
One of the victims, identified as Jane Doe 1, was awarded $65 million. She was 13 to 16 years old at the time of the molestations, which occurred between 2013 and 2017, according to the lawsuit. The other victim, identified as Jane Doe 2, received $37.5 million. She was 13 to 15 years old when she was abused between 2009 and 2011. The awards were for emotional distress and trauma.
Niepp, 39, was arrested in 2017 after he threatened to publish photos of one of the girls and was convicted that year of multiple counts of sexual abuse involving the two girls and possession of child pornography. He was sentenced to 52 years in prison.
“No one should have to endure what these two young women went through to obtain justice,” said Natalie Weatherford, who represented the former student who got the $37.5-million award. “For years the district turned a blind eye to parent and student complaints that Neipp was a sexual predator. Even more outrageous is that the district gave Neipp tenure and awarded him teacher of the year after receiving detailed complaints that he was targeting and boundary-crossing with several middle-school girls.”
Weatherford said Neipp molested the girls in the band room and in his office and even had a surveillance camera set up outside so he could see anyone approaching when he was alone with the girls.
According to the lawsuit, Neipp began grooming the girls “by sending text messages, emails and regularly spending time alone with each of them in his classroom.” In both cases, the teacher’s behavior escalated to sexually suggestive remarks, holding their hands and kissing and touching them while they were alone, according to the lawsuit.
The district was twice alerted by parents that Neipp was sending inappropriate text messages to female students, to a 13-year-old in 2010 and then to another 13-year-old in 2013.
After a parent of the second girl informed the principal and other school district administrators of the improper contacts, instead of increasing supervision of Neipp, the district awarded him a tenured position and recognition as teacher of the year, the suit alleged.
“These young women are the true heroes in this story,” said Lauren Cerri, the attorney who represented the victim who was awarded $65 million. “This verdict proves that members of our community will not tolerate school districts that put the image and reputation of the school over the safety of children from sexual abuse.”