Some 30 years after she was sexually abused by a music teacher at Aberdeen High School, a settlement and public acknowledgement of the abuse may provide its survivor a new lease on life.
This month, Maria Joyner, now 47 years old, was awarded $2 million in a settlement stemming from the abuse at the hands of Michael L. Alstad, who worked as a band director at Aberdeen High School and Miller Junior High from 1986 to 1991.
"This has been a whirlwind," said Joyner. "I saw this process of the lawsuit and settlement as being a necessary step for me to hopefully put all this behind me and just start my new life."
The Daily World does not typically print the names of sexual abuse survivors. However, Joyner came forward with her story, hoping it may help other women who have suffered from abuse.
Joyner was in the band program at Aberdeen High School and said Alstad began to "groom" her when she was 15; she said the sexual abuse began when she was 16.
"Someone that age does not have the emotional maturity to be able to process and understand the gravity of what was happening," she said. "I was scared. I was embarrassed. And I felt like a prisoner of his because he was very controlling. He was very angry."
There were rumors of the abuse within the school at the time, prompting a group of students to approach the school district with their concerns.
"School administrators called me into the office and told me there were suspicions of an inappropriate relationship happening between the two of us," said Joyner. "Of course, I was embarrassed and scared and I denied it."
She claims she was told by school staff that "if they caught me that I would be in trouble, and to stay away from him. So of course that left me feeling like I was to blame. I was the one doing something wrong."
The abuse continued through Joyner's graduation, around which time Alstad resigned from the school.
"He followed me to college and continued to pursue me," said Joyner. "At that point I was more mature and able to advocate for myself. I told him I wanted nothing to do with him, at which point he became very aggressive, and was harassing me and stalking me and threatening me. I threatened to call the police and that's what finally stopped his behavior."
What followed, as it does for many abuse survivors, was a difficult life for Joyner.
"It's difficult to describe unless you've been through it," she said. "The (post-traumatic stress syndrome) is ongoing. It's greatly inhibited my ability to have healthy intimate relationships. It affected my ability to teach in the classroom. And if affected by ability to really carry on healthy social relationships."
She continued, "I did not deal with this in a healthy way because, like so many victims, I tried to shut this out. I never allowed myself to accept this happened to me and I never allowed myself to process it."
The suit was filed in Snohomish County Superior Court in 2019, naming the Aberdeen School District and Alstad as the defendants.
"Going through this process of making him and the district accountable was a necessary step to allow me to start the healing process and seek out counseling and therapy," said Joyner.
Her attorney, Darrell Cochran of Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala PLLC, said, "Maria just reached a point in her life where she needed to get this resolved in her own mind and her spirit."
Cochran said what came out during the course of the litigation was "how little (the school district) did in response" to the initial allegations. He said there was no structure put in place around Alstad and his interactions with students outside the teaching arena.
As part of the case investigation, Alstad was sent a list of "interrogatories," questions related to the allegations. In his responses returned to the court in July 2019, Alstad admitted in some detail his encounters with Joyner over the course of several years.
When asked about the process he used to "groom" Joyner "for sexual contact, Alstad objected to the term "grooming" as vague, but went on to say that he "fell in love" with Joyner, "and believe she fell in love with me. We treated each other as lovers. I recognize, of course, that I should not have acted on my love for her, and I deeply regret that I did act on it."
When asked to identify any other student or former student he had sexual contact with, he declined to answer, saying, "Assuming for sake of argument that I did have such contact with another student, that student could now have a life that would be badly disrupted by involvement of any sort in this lawsuit. I would rather suffer whatever penalties the court might impose than answer this."
Joyner said she was not surprised Alstad freely admitted to the abuse, saying part of the grooming process is normalizing his behavior. She also claimed it's why Alstad told her "so casually about how he did this with other students, and he confessed this to another teacher, without any fear of any discipline."
There is no criminal case pending against Alstad because of the state's statute of limitations, said Joyner's attorneys.
Alstad, through his attorney David Marshall, replied to a Daily World request for comment with: "When I was a young high school teacher, I made a serious mistake. I deeply regret it. I hope this settlement will help Ms. Joyner."
Joyner said her suit was filed in part to protect other high school girls. She filed a complaint with the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction; according to that agency's website, Alstad voluntarily surrendered his state teaching credentials March 2, 2006. After that, Alstad was removed from a teaching position in Port Townsend, but Joyner said he continues to teach in Canada.
Alstad's Linkedin page listed him as a music director for the North Battleford Kinsmen Band in Saskatchewan. That Linkedin page has since been taken down.
When asked for comment, current Aberdeen School Superintendent Dr. Alicia Henderson, who was not serving in the district at the time, referred questions about the litigation to the state's Schools Risk Management Pool attorney Brent Beecher, who handled the litigation on behalf of the district. Beecher provided the following statement:
"At the end of 2018, the Aberdeen School District No. 5 was made aware that a woman who had been a student at Weatherwax High School in the late 1980s had been abused by one of her teachers. That teacher, who has not been a teacher in the district since 1991, admitted to the inappropriate relationship. The district was saddened and dismayed to learn of what had happened three decades ago, and took its responsibility to compensate the student very seriously. The lawsuit between the student and the district has been resolved."
The $2 million settlement will be paid through the Westport Insurance Company, said Cochran.
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