Sexual abuse lawsuit filed against Santa Maria school district

Santa Barbara News-Press [Santa Barbara CA]

September 26, 2021

By Madison Hirneisen

A former student filed a childhood sexual abuse lawsuit against the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District on Thursday, alleging that the district was negligent in hiring a teacher who sexually assaulted him. 

The lawsuit was filed by former student James McDaniel, who is accusing the district of completing “inadequate pre-employment background checks” before hiring former teacher Michael Cardoza. Mr. Cardoza was a teacher at Santa Maria and Pioneer Valley High Schools from 1997 to 2006 and was convicted in 2008 of sexually abusing Mr. McDaniel. 

The lawsuit accuses the district of “knowingly” fostering a “pervasive and hostile environment that utterly disregarded the rights and safety of young students.” As a result, Mr. McDaniel is demanding a trial by jury and damages exceeding $25,000. 

“Even after all these years, I still live with the pain of the sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of Michael Cardoza,” Mr. McDaniel said in a statement. “It was a difficult decision to come forward in 2008, but it was the right decision. Today, I am again coming forward to ensure students at the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District are better protected than I was in 2006.”

The case was filed under the California Child Victims Act (Assembly Bill 218), which allows survivors of abuse to file civil lawsuits for child sexual abuse that was previously barred by a statute of limitations. It was filed in the Superior Court of Santa Barbara County and lists five causes of action — negligence, negligent hiring and retention, negligent supervision, sexual battery and sexual harassment. 

In addition to the school district and Mr. Cardoza, the lawsuit includes “Does 3 to 20” as defendants. The suit explains these are unnamed individuals who Mr. McDaniel believes are liable as employees of the SMJUHSD. 

The suit alleges that the school district and Does 3 to 20 “failed to acknowledge unsafe conditions and red flags” in Mr. Cardoza’s behavior and did not conduct adequate background checks before hiring, which ultimately led to the sexual abuse of Mr. McDaniel and others, according to the lawsuit. 

Mr. McDaniel was placed in Mr. Cardoza’s Algebra 1B class as a sophomore in high school. According to the lawsuit, Mr. McDaniel, who was 16 at the time, was groomed by Mr. Cardoza to earn his “emotional and psychological trust.” 

In June 2006, Mr. Cardoza forced Mr. McDaniel to perform inappropriate sexual acts and took photos during the assault, according to the lawsuit. Mr. McDaniel reported the abuse to a friend and the police on the same day, and Mr. Cardoza was arrested shortly afterward. 

The ex-teacher was convicted on all seven counts, including four counts of oral copulation with a minor, and was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2008 for sexually assaulting Mr. McDaniel. He was released from the California Health Care Facility in August and resides in Santa Maria as a registered sex offender, according to the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit alleges that Mr. Cardoza had a pattern of sexually abusing minors before he was hired by SMJUHSD in 1997. It states that Mr. Cardoza is a “serial pedophile with a history of abuse,” and outlines several other allegations brought against the teacher before he was hired by SMJUHSD. 

Two students accused Mr. Cardoza of sexual abuse when he taught at Golden West High School in Visalia in the 1980s. After 20 years at the school, Mr. Cardoza resigned to “escape accountability” for the assaults and started a new job at St. Mary’s Good Shepherd Catholic Parish as an altar boy coordinator, according to the lawsuit. 

Mr. Cardoza was accused of engaging inappropriate behavior with minors while he worked as a coordinator at the church. During that time, he also applied to Mount Angel Seminary to become a priest, but he was dismissed in 1995 by the church’s Vocational Director Father Rob Craig after multiple anonymous abuse complaints were filed against Mr. Cardoza. 

After being dismissed from Seminary, Mr. Cardoza was hired to teach math at Santa Maria High School in 1997 after the school district “failed to conduct a basic and proper background check, which would have revealed a long history of sexual abuse of minors,” the lawsuit says. He was transferred to Pioneer Valley High School in 2004. 

“The reality is that one phone call from staff at Santa Maria JUHSD to Father Craig or anyone else associated with Cardoza’s tumultuous stay at the Archdiocese of Fresno would have prevented Cardoza from ever being hired to teach within Santa Maria JUHSD,” the lawsuit said. “Tragically, one phone call to Father Craig would have prevented (Mr. McDaniel), and numerous other youths, from being sexually abused.”

The SMJUHSD “don’t have information at this time” and declined to comment on the lawsuit, Kenny Klein, the district public information officer, sent the News-Press in an email.