Shawn Morris of Snohomish County, Washington, is a 54-year-old construction worker who never graduated from high school. He’s described as a wonderful human being who tries hard but has demons.
Sometime next week, the Grossmont Union High School District will be put on official notice it must answer for those demons.
A lawsuit filed on Morris’ behalf alleges that his guidance counselor at Santana High School in Santee molested him countless times over three years, starting around December 1981, with allegations of rape behind closed blinds and at a San Diego bathhouse called The Tubs.
“The years of sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of [counselor] Douglas Foster turned into decades of trauma,” Morris said in a statement Wednesday.
Known during his teens as Shawn Baughman (his stepfather’s last name), Morris said the abuse affected every part of his life, and he dropped out of the district’s alternative school when he was assigned to Foster.
“On the first day of [his] new start in the Phoenix Program, [Morris] opened the door to his new classroom and found Foster sitting alone as his educator,” says the San Diego Superior Court lawsuit filed Nov. 16. “[Morris] was shocked to learn that he was assigned to Foster, alone, for four hours a day. Unsurprisingly, Foster took advantage of his unsupervised and unfettered access … to continue the horrific sexual abuse.”
Morris didn’t earn his GED until 2015.
Something else he didn’t learn until recently: His alleged abuser — Doug Foster — had died around 1990 or 1992, Dunn said.
But the statute of limitations expired years ago. It wasn’t until AB 218 — the California Child Victims Act — became law in 2020 that long-ago survivors like Morris could sue.
Now Morris is represented by Greenberg Gross, which has launched a specialty practice and a 2-month-old website to match: fightforsurvivors.com. The firm has more than 100 cases in the works, said Jemma Dunn, one of Morris’ lawyers.
Dunn told Times of San Diego on Wednesday that “there’s no way that Shawn was the first” Santana victim, given Foster’s alleged pattern of grooming. She’s hoping media attention will encourage others to come forward.
Morris said the abuse impacted his relationships, jobs and ability to trust others.
“I am coming forward to share my story to protect others, heal and have an opportunity at a better life,” he said in his statement.
Suing the school district for negligence wasn’t his first thought, however.
According to Dunn, Morris reached out to Grossmont officials when he became aware of AB 218 and his new ability to seek accountability.
Grossmont called law enforcement and met with Morris, Dunn said.
“Law enforcement informed our client that Doug Foster had passed away,” she said. “And then he never heard another thing.”
Although the East County high school district, based in El Cajon, hasn’t formally been notified of the suit, its spokesman Collin McGlashen issued a 115-word statement Tuesday that began with the district saying it condemns all acts of sexual abuse, and “was shocked and saddened to learn of the allegations against its now-deceased former employee.”
McGlashen said that upon notification of the long-ago actions, the district immediately notified law enforcement and has cooperated with Morris’ attorneys’ requests for available documentation in a “mutual search for truth and accountability.”
“Unfortunately, since the alleged conduct took place nearly 40 years ago … this is a challenging undertaking,” the spokesman said via email. “Our effort to investigate these very disturbing allegations continues. In light of the pending litigation, and in order to maintain the privacy rights of all involved, the district will not comment further at this time.”
Grossmont officials will have 30 days to answer the complaint after being served notice, possibly Monday.
Captioned as Doug Ray Foster in one yearbook, the guidance counselor listed his likes: “backpacking, bicycling and racketball” and dislikes: “Mondays and sub-zero weather.”
His plans: “Ahead.”
Attorney Dunn says her legal team came across a yearbook photo of Foster resting his head on a zebra.
Lawsuit descriptions of his behavior were far more chilling.
As a guidance counselor, Foster asked Morris personal questions, encouraging him to be honest, the suit says. Morris confided that his parents were divorced and that his stepfather was both psychologically and physically abusive.
“In fact, [Morris] told Foster that [he] would often step in for his mother as the target of his stepfather’s abuse,” says the 19-page suit. “Plaintiff told Foster that he enjoyed school and used it as a way to escape from his troubled home life.”
The suit says Foster then targeted Morris for sexual grooming based on his emotional, psychological and physical vulnerability as “[Morris] was drawn to and sought guidance from male figures who showed concern for him.”
Foster began brushing against Morris, hugging the teen and caressing his arm or rubbing his shoulders as if he were consoling Morris, the suit says.
“Foster soon escalated his physical behavior and began sexually assaulting Plaintiff while Plaintiff was in Foster’s office at the school,” the suit says. “Foster began kissing Plaintiff, and fondling Plaintiff’s genitals outside his clothing. Foster would unzip Plaintiff’s pants, pull out Plaintiff’s penis, and fondle Plaintiff’s genitals. Foster would also forcibly pull Plaintiff onto Foster’s lap, where he would continue fondling Plaintiff’s genitals.”
Morris was too scared to stop Foster, the suit says.
“Foster utilized his authority as a well-liked counselor to escalate his abuse…. Foster would orally copulate [Morris], have [Morris] orally copulate him, and digitally penetrate his anus on countless occasions.”
The suit said the assaults continued at least three to four times a week, and sometimes daily, throughout the time Morris attended Santana.
“Even after Plaintiff’s assignment as a student aide ended, Foster would pull [him] out of his other classes under the guise of ‘counseling’ Plaintiff. Despite being pulled out of class on an abnormally frequent basis, none of Plaintiff’s teachers ever questioned Foster’s actions.”
Beginning his sophomore year, the suit says, Foster took Morris to a San Diego bathhouse called “The Tubs.”
“Despite being an adults-only establishment, Foster was able to bring [Morris] inside
… by telling management that [Morris] was Foster’s son,” the suit says. “Foster rented a private suite for an hour.”
There he anally raped Morris, the suit says.
Morris was paralyzed with fear, wishing he could scream, but was afraid of Foster as an adult and authority figure, the suit says.
After that first rape, Morris “quickly pulled on his underwear and ran out of the room before he could grab any other clothing,” the suit says. “Foster called out for [Morris] to stop, but [Morris] did not care about anything other than escaping The Tubs.”
Morris walked the many miles home barefoot — a trek that took nearly eight hours, the suit says. (Despite that ordeal, Foster took Morris back to The Tubs at least two more times.)
At Santana High School, Shawn Alvin Morris was sexually assaulted countless times, the suit says, including at least a dozen acts of sodomy in Grossmont’s Phoenix Building, classrooms, Foster’s office and even custodial closets at Santana.
The suit is asking for a jury trial and unspecified monetary damages.
“As this case progresses and the evidence is established, we’re confident a jury will compensate our client accordingly in light of the severity of abuse he suffered,” attorney Dunn said.
Chances of an out-of-court settlement?
“There’s no telling,” she said in a phone interview from her office in Costa Mesa. “To be fair, for something that happened 40 years ago, it’s hard to say: ‘We’d better settle right away.’ They haven’t told us one way or another what their position is.”
Greenberg Gross attorney Brian Williams, also involved in the case to be heard by downtown Judge Gregory Pollack, said in a statement:
“Foster acted with impunity for years, sexually abusing Mr. Morris. Despite the obvious signs and the repeated sexual abuse that occurred on campus as outlined in the complaint, staff at Santana High School and the Grossmont [Union] High School District failed to intervene. Mr. Morris deserves justice for the sexual abuse he suffered as a minor.”
Said Dunn: “Kids deserve to feel safe and supported in schools. We are filing this complaint to hold Grossmont … accountable and help ensure other students don’t suffer the same abuse and trauma as Mr. Morris.”
The state Legislature passed Assembly Bill 218 in September 2019. A month later it was signed into law.
The law opened a three-year window, beginning Jan. 1, 2020, for survivors of any age to pursue a case, no matter when the abuse occurred or if their abuser was alive or dead.
It also boosts the time limit for commencing an action for recovery of damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual assault to the age of 40 or within five years of the date the survivor discovers that psychological injury or illness occurring after the age of 18 was caused by sexual assault (whichever is later).
With her law firm already using AB 218 to sue school districts in Santa Maria and Santa Ana, Dunn is proud of her work.
“What better thing to do with your law degree,” she said, “than to help people that are survivors of child sexual abuse?”