Decades-old sexual abuse allegations against SLVUSD administrator resurface in lawsuit

Litigation filed in September is seeking damages from an SLVUSD administrator.
This civil lawsuit filed in September is seeking damages from SLVUSD administrator Ned Hearn over sex-abuse allegations dating back to the 1990s.
(Nick Ibarra / Lookout Santa Cruz)

SLVUSD Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Ned Hearn is accused in a civil lawsuit to have raped and sexually abused a then-16-year-old girl when she was a student at Dixon High School in Solano County and he worked at the school. Hearn is denying the allegations.

A woman’s claim of sexual abuse she suffered as a high school student more than two decades ago is continuing to haunt a San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District administrator.

Texas resident Melissa Chowning alleges in a civil lawsuit filed in September that SLVUSD Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Ned Hearn sexually abused her on at least 15 occasions when she attended Dixon High School in Solano County.

In her civil complaint filed in Solano County Superior Court, Chowning claims the abuse took place in 1997 and 1998 and included rape, fondling and kissing. Chowning alleges that the abuse began when she was 16 and an athlete on a school swim team coached by Hearn, who also taught at the high school.

Hearn has consistently denied Chowning’s allegations, including when they first publicly surfaced in 2017 — and in a November legal filing responding to Chowning’s complaint.

Chowning is seeking unspecified damages from Hearn and the Dixon Unified School District, alleging the district was negligent in several respects that allowed abuse to take place. The litigation was filed months after a state law took effect in January 2020, significantly extending the statute of limitations in civil suits related to childhood sexual abuse and opening a 3-year window to file litigation for even older claims.

Chowning’s court filings lay out a timeline of alleged events extending nearly 20 years past her time at Dixon High School. Her complaint alleges she first told her mother of the abuse in 2007, who then filed a police report in Dixon, and also spoke with Hearn.

Hearn, the complaint alleges, “acknowledged and apologized for the sexual abuse” of Chowning in that conversation with her mother.

SLV unable to ‘corroborate any claims’

The lawsuit against Hearn comes as San Lorenzo Valley Unified is embroiled in a swirl of misconduct allegations involving its staff that date back decades. Many of those allegations first surfaced in March and April on Instagram accounts created to share those stories.

Two SLV High teachers remain on paid leave while allegations against them are investigated, and at least two additional district employees, whom the district hasn’t identified, were cited as under investigation. The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office has confirmed it is investigating the allegations, but no related charges have been filed or arrests made.

Hearn is not among the employees currently under investigation, according to SLVUSD Superintendent Laurie Bruton.

San Lorenzo Valley High School
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The allegations against Hearn detailed in Chowning’s lawsuit predate his employment at SLVUSD altogether. When he was hired by the SLV district in 1999, there was no indication of any allegations of misconduct from the Dixon district or law enforcement, according to Bruton.

As the claims against him continue to resurface, however, they have left Hearn and the district in an increasingly tense position.

Chowning first brought her allegations directly to SLVUSD in 2017, during the early months of the #MeToo movement. A police report was filed with local law enforcement, but Hearn was never arrested or charged. He was placed on leave from his position as an assistant principal at San Lorenzo Valley High but was cleared to return to work.

Soon after, Chowning detailed her allegations of abuse to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The paper also reported accounts from Chowning’s mother and two former classmates who supported her claims. Hearn was, once again, placed on leave before he was eventually transferred to an administrative assignment that removed him from the high school.

Hearn has since been promoted several times within the SLV district office, and now works out of the administrative office as assistant superintendent of instructional services. In that role, he oversees curriculum materials, and teacher and staff development, making a base salary of $149,000, personnel records show. That’s 49% higher than his base pay of $99,775 in 2016 when he was SLV High’s assistant principal.

Most recently, Hearn was again placed on leave at some point in the past year after the district learned of the ongoing litigation, according to Bruton, the SLVUSD superintendent.

“Recently, when the complaint in Dixon was brought to our attention, we followed our Safe Schools protocols,” Bruton told Lookout in an email. “We placed him temporarily on administrative leave while an internal inquiry was conducted. After interviews, we could not discover, substantiate, or corroborate any claims of misconduct over the course of his 20-year career with our school district.”

Bruton said the district was unable to comment further, and she has not responded to questions seeking clarity on the inquiry conducted or the duration of Hearn’s leave.

Abuse allegations

Chowning, 40, graduated from Dixon High School in 1999, according to her legal filings. She now lives in Texas.

In her civil complaint, Chowning alleges that Hearn worked as both a teacher and swim coach at the high school and claims they first met around 1995.

Chowning alleges Hearn began “grooming” her, paying her special attention and compliments, spending alone time with her, inappropriately touching her and giving her a pager so the two could more easily communicate.

The complaint alleges that in August 1997, when Chowning was 16, the grooming progressed to sexual abuse — including kissing, fondling of her breasts and genetalia, and rape — that persisted until around February 1998. The alleged abuse took place in an office at the Dixon city pool and in Hearn’s home on 15 to 25 occasions, by Chowning’s count.

•••

Here is the full text of Chowning’s complaint:

•••

Chowning’s mother didn’t learn of the alleged abuse until 2007, according to the complaint. When she did, she reported it to Dixon police — but no investigation was conducted at the time, the filing states.

Chowning’s mother also reached out to Hearn the same year, the complaint states. During their conversation, Hearn “acknowledged and apologized for the sexual abuse,” the lawsuit alleges. It goes on to claim Chowning sent Hearn an email regarding the abuse in 2007. In his response, the complaint alleges that Hearn told Chowning “he was sorry for what he had done and asked her to keep the abuse to herself, so she wouldn’t ruin his life.”

A decade later as the #MeToo movement surged late in 2017, Chowning made her allegations public. She reported them to SLVUSD, as well as to law enforcement in Dixon and Santa Cruz County before speaking to the press.

Hearn denied “each, every, and all of the allegations” in a November court filing responding to Chowning’s complaint. His response goes on to argue the lawsuit cites insufficient evidence to support its claims, exceeds relevant statutes of limitation and violates several of his constitutional rights.

•••

Here is the full text of Hearn’s denial:

•••

Hearn’s attorney, Whitney Davis, reiterated his blanket denial when reached for comment by Lookout. Davis said neither he nor Hearn could comment further on specific allegations.

An attorney for Chowning, Louanne Masry, said her client was also unable to comment further on the allegations at this stage of the litigation.

Dixon Unified School District and its attorneys in the case have not responded to multiple requests for comment made by phone and email. But legal filings show the district has mounted a vigorous defense against any claims of negligence or responsibility — including by arguing that the state law that allowed the lawsuit to be filed violates the district’s due process rights.

The lawsuit has yet to progress to a trial. Its next hearing is set for June 23.

New state law allowed suit to be filed

Before January 2020, allegations like Chowning’s could not have formed the basis of a civil suit due to statutes of limitation.

That changed with Assembly Bill 218, legislation signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom and co-authored by state Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley.

The new law provides victims up to 22 years after their 18th birthday to sue over the impacts of their abuse. And it opened a three-year window, through the end of 2022, for victims to sue regarding even older allegations.

A growing number of lawsuits have since been filed, many seeking damages from schools and churches along with alleged abusers. On Thursday, the Mercury News reported that a former star track athlete is suing Los Gatos High School and Archbishop Mitty High School in Santa Clara County over allegations the two schools failed to protect her from sexual abuse by a coach.

“If it wasn’t for that new statute of limitations, Mrs. Chowning would not have had the ability to come forward and face Mr. Hearn in this case, and the school district who we allege was responsible for not adequately supervising and monitoring her as a student at the high school,” Masry, the Chowning attorney, told Lookout.

Status of criminal investigation unclear

Key questions remain unanswered about the criminal investigation into Chowning’s allegations against Hearn.

Dixon police confirmed an active investigation was underway as of Dec. 2017. “I don’t care how long it’s been,” then-Dixon Police Chief Robert Thompson told the Vacaville Reporter. “If you were a victim of a crime, we will investigate it.”

Years later, however, the status of that criminal investigation remains unclear. Dixon Police Acting Chief Tom Cordova told Lookout earlier this week that his department forwarded their investigation to the Davis Police Department based on the direction of the investigation. Records suggest Hearn lived in Davis in the mid-1990s.

“We opened a case, and what we looked into was forwarded to the Davis Police Department because that was where the investigation took us,” Cordova said.

Reached for comment, Davis Police Deputy Chief Paul Doroshov would only say that his department “can’t discuss that investigation.”

Updates:

1:38 PM, May. 07, 2021: CORRECTION | This story has been updated to reflect the correct gender of attorney Whitney Davis.