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$25M Verdict Against Santa Barbara Unified School District for the Sexual Abuse of a Student by Former Employee

— December 19, 2023

Former SBUSD security guard Justin Sell was arrested and charged with multiple felonies in 2013 for the abuse of students at Dos Pueblos High School.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif – Attorneys John Taylor and Natalie Weatherford of California plaintiff trial law firm, Taylor & Ring, obtained a $25M verdict against the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) for the sexual abuse of Plaintiff John Doe 2 throughout 2008-2011. John Doe 2 was sexually abused by SBUSD security guard and assistant football coach, Justin Sell at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California. Sell groomed and sexually abused John Doe 2 beginning when the Plaintiff was 14 years old.

“The school district and its employees had multiple missed opportunities to get rid of a person they acknowledged was a problematic employee” said John Taylor. “They repeatedly chose to protect the employee over the safety of the kids.”

“The jury recognized the lifelong harm that childhood sexual abuse inflicts on its victims,” explains attorney Natalie Weatherford. “The verdict represents a step forward in the young life of the Plaintiff and validation that the abuse was not his fault.”

Throughout 2008-2013, Sell also groomed and sexually abused other Dos Pueblos students, John Doe and John Doe 3. In June 2013, Sell was arrested and charged with multiple felonies, including stalking and sexual abuse. He was convicted and sentenced to one year in County Jail and five years’ probation. Sell is currently living and working in Santa Barbara.

Read the full complaint.

Timeline and Case Background

2005-2006: SBUSD hired Justin Sell as the freshman football coach and he was allowed to be the unofficial supervisor of the weight room used by student athletes without any training, supervision, or oversight.

2006-2007: School administrators met with Sell to address problems, such as Sell repeatedly having lunch with freshman boys rather than performing his employment duties. The district got involved yet it did not result in any improvement and administrators did not document the misconduct or warning given to Sell.

2007-2008: Sell punched a student in the face during the school day and while on campus. Multiple school employees were aware of the incident, yet it was not reported to law enforcement as was required by law.

2008-2009: Sell began his grooming of John Doe 2 and students and staff saw Sell alone with John Doe 2 on the school campus.

June 2009: Despite Sell’s history of assault against a student and inappropriate contact with male students, SBUSD promoted Sell to be a permanent employee as a campus safety assistant. The same year, the head football coach reported Sell’s inappropriate behavior to the athletic director and school principal at least three times.

Fall 2010: The head football coach terminated Sell as a football coach due to Sell’s insubordination in refusing to stop spending time with another male student. However, Sell remained employed as the security guard with full access to the campus and students. Student athletes and school employees continued to observe Sell give John Doe 2 special attention. The same year, another student’s parents made a formal complaint to the school and provided clear and alarming information. Despite this, SBUSD did not report to law enforcement as mandated reporters.

Image of a sad boy
Sad Boy; image courtesy of Myriams-Fotos via Pixabay,

Spring 2011: Despite the long list of alarming information SBUSD had about Sell and his misconduct towards young boys, SBUSD transferred Sell to work at Santa Barbara High School (a school within SBUSD).

June 2011: SBUSD entered into a confidential resignation agreement with Sell, allowing him to resign his security guard position in lieu of termination. SBUSD agreed to provide Sell with a “neutral” recommendation to future employers.

2013: Two male students came forward to report stalking and sexual abuse by Sell to law enforcement. The County of Santa Barbara filed a felony complaint against Justin Sell for sex crimes. Sell was convicted of two felonies and required to register as a sex offender.

2022: In March of 2022, Taylor & Ring filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of John Doe 2. On December 8, 2023, after a three-week trial, a jury in the Superior Court of Santa Barbara rendered a $25M verdict and apportioned 80% of the fault to Santa Barbara Unified School District.

Taylor & Ring, an award-winning Los Angeles-based trial law firm, represents plaintiffs across California in high-impact civil rights, personal injury, wrongful death, and sexual assault, abuse and harassment matters.

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