Two McNary High School graduates are suing their former choir teacher and the Salem-Keizer School District, alleging Joshua Rist groomed and manipulated them for years while district officials took no action.
The women, identified in court documents as Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2, said Rist sought out the teens and worked to earn their trust with flattery, praise and special access to him, then began steering conversations with them toward sexual topics.
The suit was filed Wednesday in Marion County Circuit Court, with the students seeking $10 million in total damages.
Rist did not immediately respond to an email Wednesday afternoon seeking comment. He is a teacher at Kalapuya Elementary School in west Salem.
State records, however, show that in a licensing order signed in June, Rist admitted “gross neglect of duty” with the two students.
READ IT: Lawsuit
Salem-Keizer School District spokesman Aaron Harada confirmed Wednesday that Rist was working at Kalapuya Elementary School after being placed on paid administrative leave twice because of the allegations in the lawsuit.
Rist was first on leave from May 28, 2021, to Aug. 18, 2022, Harada said, then placed on leave again on Feb. 9, 2023, before returning to work in the fall.
He did not respond to other questions about Rist’s employment history or why he was retained as a district employee following a state misconduct finding.
“The district is aware of the pending lawsuit and has no comment on pending litigation. The district is aware of and fully cooperated in the investigation by both law enforcement and TSPC. The district is focused on the safe education of its students,” Harada said in a statement.
The suit said Rist repeatedly commented on the student’s physical appearances, giving them “lingering hugs” and massages. He discussed with them his own sexual experiences and asked them for details about their sex lives, the former students allege. They said he expressed wanting to be with them and that their relationship would escalate once the students graduated high school.
The abuse took place over several years until 2020, when Jane Doe 2 graduated high school.
Oregon’s Teacher Standards and Practices Commission suspended Rist’s license for 60 days on June 21 after finding he engaged in “an inappropriate relationship with two of his female students,” who are identified by initials. He will be on probation for three years.
The state investigation was prompted by a district complaint on June 1, 2021. Rist agreed to state findings in a four-page order that he told a student he loved her, held or squeezed her hand during “high-fives” at school, and discussed “topics of a personal nature including (students)’s sexual orientation and his personal/marital life.”
READ IT: TSPC order
The order also said he discussed the Rajneesh cult with a student and commented on her personal appearance.
“He accepts responsibility for his overly personal interactions with some students, better understands where to draw professional boundary lines, and has changed his professional practices accordingly,” the order said.
Emily Stebbins, attorney representing the women, said the students listed in the commission’s order are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Rist reinstated his suspended license with the commission on Aug. 21, 2023. He has been a licensed teacher since 2013, according to Christina Edgar, the commission’s director of professional practices.
The suit claims the school district failed to notice obvious warning signs of Rist’s “grooming behavior” and failed to immediately report suspected child abuse. It claims Rist “suffered virtually no consequences” following the commission’s finding of professional misconduct because his suspension ran during the summer, he was retained as an employee and placed in a district elementary school.
“It’s shocking how many blaring warning signs and complaints were completely ignored for years and years,” Stebbins said in a news release announcing the suit. “It makes my head explode when institutions choose to cover up for predators over taking proper steps to protect their kids. When a school district plays kick-the-can with an abusive teacher, they need a swift culture change and some long overdue accountability.”
Correction: This story was updated to correct the location of Kalapuya Elementary School. It is in west Salem, not south Salem. This article also misstated the timeframe when former McNary students alleged Rist abused them. Salem Reporter apologizes for the errors.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.