Judge to rule on gag order in molestation suit

An attorney for the Eagle Point School District says a lawyer representing two girls in a molestation lawsuit has tainted the potential jury pool by speaking to members of the press.

Joel Heller, who previously worked for Little Butte Elementary School, is being sued for allegedly molesting young girls at the school. Eagle Point School District Superintendant Cynda Rickert and former Principal Lynn Scott also are named in the suit, which alleges they did not respond appropriately to allegations made by students.

Medford attorney Tom Petersen has filed a federal civil suit against the district, saying that Heller molested the two young girls in his classroom in fall 2011. The suit alleges that the district knew Heller had a history of abusive behavior toward students and that it failed to take immediate action to protect the young girls after the accusations came to light.

The district's attorney, Kim Hoyt, argued in Medford's U.S. District Court on Wednesday that Petersen has acted in an unprofessional manner by discussing case details with members of the media, including the Mail Tribune and local television stations.

Hoyt said Petersen is attempting to taint the jury pool for the pending trial. She argued that Petersen is speaking openly about evidence that won't be admissible in the trial, something that could cause prejudice in potential jury members.

"Counsel went far beyond what is public record in this case," Hoyt said.

Petersen countered by saying that his comments are within the public's best interest.

"The public has the right to know what's going on in schools," Petersen said.

Petersen argued that no definitive proof was presented by Hoyt that his statements were damaging to a trial, or that he acted unethically by granting interviews to the media. He said he is trying to protect children from a dangerous situation at the school by speaking openly about the Heller case.

The district is seeking a gag order calling for both sides to cease any public discussion of the case.

Heller, of Ashland, no longer works for the district. Hoyt said that's reason enough to stop Petersen from talking to the media about a potential threat to children within the school.

Heller, in an interview with the Mail Tribune in December 2012, said he was never previously accused of inappropriate behavior with students. He said an investigation into the case by police turned up no wrongdoing on his part.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark D. Clarke said he would issue a written ruling on the "gag order" in the coming days.

Clarke said he respects Petersen's argument regarding the public's right to know about issues within schools. However, he acknowledged that such speech is subject to reasonable controls when it comes to court cases.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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