Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal title=
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal
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Entrance of Santa Barbara High School's Multimedia Arts & Design Academy (Photo: MAD)

By Jerry Roberts of Newsmakers

A nationally prominent law firm that represents victims of sexual abuse confirmed on Wednesday they have been contracted in connection with allegations of improper conduct by leaders of Santa Barbara High School's Multimedia Arts & Design Academy.

“We have been retained,” attorney Stu Mollrich told Newsmakers, speaking for the Irvine-based firm of Manly, Stewart and Finaldi. “We have not yet filed an action.”

Their entry into the local controversy now swirling around the acclaimed MAD Academy raises the stakes in the affair, which escalated last week,when parents of a former student publicly accused Pablo Sweeney, the program’s ousted operations director, of sexual “predation” towards their son, as another parent released a social media video showing Dan Williams, the soon-to-be-retired longtime director, partying with students.

In public comments to the school board, the parents charged that Santa Barbara Unified School District officials turned a blind eye to improprieties and failed to report them as required to law enforcement or child welfare agencies.

As Superintendent Cary Matsuoka, district executives and the school board maintained total silence about the allegations, on the advice of counsel, there were these new developments:

  • John C. Manly, lead attorney of the Orange County firm, told the Independent’s Blanca Garcia that two more unidentified, alleged victims have retained him “to represent them during law-enforcement interviews” and called Sweeney’s alleged conduct “at best, wildly inappropriate and at worst well-known grooming behaviors.”

  • The five-member school board, it was learned, is again expected to have the MAD Academy controversy on the agenda for their closed door session at next week’s board meeting, after discussing the matter in executive session last week without making any comment about it in the public portion of the meeting. 

  • Members of the MAD Academy’s non-profit fundraising board, bidding to distance themselves from the matter, told parents in a letter that they are “not involved in any shape or manner” in allegations and investigations of improper behavior by leaders of the embattled program.

Although Williams works for the school district, Sweeney was employed by the non-profit, known as the California Academy Foundation.

Dan Williams (Photo: MAD)

A letter signed by 14 members of the board, incorporated to raise money for the self-described “school within a school” at Santa Barbara High, said they are “learning of and processing information in real time” about the affair.

The board “was not involved in any shape or manner with regards to the actions and subsequent investigations taken by the District against Pablo Sweeney or Dan Williams,” their letter said, adding: 

“We are only a governing body and as such we have no power to determine the employment status of a union employee of the SBUSD such as Mr. Williams. 

“In contrast, Mr. Sweeney was a MAD Academy employee and all of his salary was paid by CAF. However, because the Santa Barbara Unified School District was the first to be approached with the allegations against him, the School District immediately took over the investigation of Mr. Sweeney. 

“The MAD Board was not involved in this investigation as we do not have any investigational powers. Therefore, we acquiesced to the District, who insisted they would handle the investigation.”

Fundraising function

The board was incorporated to raise money for the self-described “school within a school” at Santa Barbara High, supplementing district funds with major contributions that pay for support staff, equipment, student trips and other expenses.

According to documents posted by, an online operation that tracks non-profits, the foundation brought in $631,640 in 2017, the most recent year for which totals are available from audited financial statements, and paid out $541,892 for the program and other expenses. Tax documents for 2017 also show land and building assets of $1.8 million.

The volunteer board members who signed the letter gave this chronology of what they knew and when they knew it about the allegations and investigations that have clouded the end of the school year. 

  • On January 17th, the board learned from the district that Sweeney had been escorted off campus, and placed him on “paid administrative leave.”

  • On March 1, Sweeney offered his resignation to Williams “and it was accepted.”

  • On April 17, the district informed the board, along with MAD parents, that Williams was being placed on paid administrative leave and, two weeks later, along with others involved with the academy, that he was returning to campus following an “amicable agreement” with the district.​

Gratitude to Williams

Board members did not learn of specific allegations against Sweeney and Williams until last week, they said.

“Again, the MAD Board was never privy to or provided any specific details of the investigation,” the letter said. “The MAD Board was given the assurance that the District did not believe Mr. Williams’ presence represented any safety issues.”

Brett Queener, MAD Foundation President (Photo: MAD Academy)

The letter also expressed the board’s gratitude to Williams who reportedly received a standing ovation at the group's recent annual fundraising gala several weeks ago, shortly after he was allowed to return to campus. 

“We are more than grateful to Dan Williams for the amazing program he has built,” it said. “At this time, the board is focused on 1) providing continuity for our existing amazing students of the Academy and 2) partnering with the district to find the very best replacement for Mr. Williams that will lead the MAD Academy and uphold its highest educational goals into the immediate future."  

Efforts to reach Board chair Brett Queener [President of the MAD Academy Foundation] were unsuccessful.

Who is John Manly? 

Attorney Manly’s firm has been at the center of many of the most high-profile sexual abuse cases in the nation, including far-flung litigation against the Catholic Church, Michigan State University and the Los Angeles Unified School Board.

John C. Manly (Photo: Manly, Stewart, Finaldi)

According to the firm’s website it has: 

  • Recovered “over a billion dollars” on behalf of survivors who “have been subjected to inappropriate acts by clergy members” within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Dioceses of San Diego, San Bernardino and Monterey, among others.

  • Won a variety of lawsuits against LA Unified, worth “hundreds of millions of dollars,” establishing that district officials “failed to protect the well-being of its student,” in cases involving sex abuse and bullying.

  • Represented more than 50 alleged victims of Dr. Larry Nassar, the notorious former physician for the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team and the women’s team at Michigan State University. 

The firm also represents women who have sued USC, charging that former university gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall sexually abused them during examinations, and accusing the administration of “actively and deliberately” covering up his behavior while failing to protect students.

In a recent interview with Manly, the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote that for sexual assault survivors, he is “the brass-knuckled lawyer of choice.”

Related Articles

 May 16, 2019: More Claims of Misconduct at MAD Academy

 May 1, 2019: MAD Academy Director to Retire Following Investigation

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a-1558628401 May 23, 2019 09:20 AM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

So... the Non-Profit Organization (NPO) run by parents hires an employee who is in direct contact with our minors students and now claims NO responsibility? Claims not involved in investigation? Outrageous neglect.; while the District paid Academy Director WIlliams is deemed safe (to party and fraternize with hormone raged, vulnerable, anxious to please teens? !Let’s see the Faculty Staff Personnel Manual, Standards of Conduct for EVERY EMPLOYED ADULT, on each campus in contact with students in whatever their official capacity. SBUnified is mismanaged. Throw out the Top Ten Executive Mgt Team including Becchio, Ramirez, Carey,.dont kick them upstairs with symbolic token Susan Salcedo. Our kids are in danger: clean house. This case and other pending ones at DP and elsewhere can cost local taxpayers $100M up that is needed for vetted, supervised teachers to instruct and mentor students. There is too much reckless, lazy, incompetent, unaccountable leadership at on payroll for $200-$340,000 for life. Trustees terminate silent, over-paid Matsuoka and team, before you bankrupt us. VOTERS elect 3 better prepared , stronger Trustees next chance. Youth are our future! Let’s demand standards of conduct for adults on payroll with improved parent oversight.

Factotum May 23, 2019 09:40 AM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

The non-profit immediately terminated their one employee in question. The school district is dealing with their union represented employee, according to very strict Ed Code protocol. Careful reading on this unfolding story is required.

Pebblehill May 24, 2019 07:29 AM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

I think the point is there should be MORE than “one employee” in question here. There is no way that Sweeney and Williams weren’t aware of each other’s behavior. Looks like Williams was protecting Sweeney when he did not do the mandatory turn in after the student came forward. So much rotten in Denmark here. As the story gains traction and more alum parents see this, maybe some of the older alums will come forward.

Pebblehill May 24, 2019 08:58 PM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

FACTOTUM- no matter how many times you say, “careful reading is required”, the fact is Sweeney was not fully investigated by the SBUSD and instead was simply fired and let go to prey elsewhere, Williams was deemed fit to return despite evidence to the contrary including a video where he clearly partied with his students. If this is the result of a strict ED code protocol for dealing with such a union employee then we are all in trouble.

Factotum May 23, 2019 09:22 AM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

Read the NewsPress story today for an entirely different perspective from witness accounts - there was no "partying" with the teacher; there was an unannounced visit to the teachers home by the students after a service for a fellow academy student who died in the Montecito mudslide. Keep reading widely before reaching any final conclusions on this incident. It appears there are other small video clip "breaking" stories about other campus incidents that also need wider exploration too going on. It is a media jungle out there today.

a-1558706718 May 24, 2019 07:05 AM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

You got that right! Dan Williams had way more than one incident at his house partying and playing beer pong with selected male students. If just a few more decide to come forward he is going to be toast. I believe his predatory grooming actions were similar to Sweeney. It boggles my mind that the parents of MAD Academy gave him a standing ovation and that they let him return!

a-1558707371 May 24, 2019 07:16 AM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

“Witness accounts”? That’s pretty rich. Most teenagers don’t confess to partying with each other much less a favorite teacher they perceive as cool because he parties with them. I know at least four recent graduates who witnessed and were at his house on several of these parties at his house, including one student who Dan attempted a late night wrestling session with no one else around. For now none of them are willing to out Dan. Hopefully that will change.

Geologist May 23, 2019 03:28 PM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

Careful reading of this story is indeed required. This story is not about partying with students; it's about allegations of sexual predation that were ignored by a school administrator. The News Press story has nothing to do with that. Any sane person should be concerned about the real story here. Do your homework. Also, these attorneys work on a contingency basis, and they don't take cases like these if they have no merit. Students don't make up these stories, and how many times do we have to hear this same story by the way? It's ghastly, and it's not about some kids getting high (that is also outrageous, but it does not do the same kind of lifelong damage.)

Watchdog May 23, 2019 04:26 PM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

The News Press article is a sham and a farce. The bogus claims made by the students are almost laughable.

Some claims were:

1) They “were struggling with Jack Cantins death and wanted to talk” - yet the audio is clearly a loud party like atmosphere with no hint of “struggling.”
“Yo Dan.. give me a thumbs up” as Dan cleaning puke with broad grin. Then mantra repeated. “Yack and Rally.. Yack and Rally” as others laughing. A reference to puking and continuing to party. Not someone with an illness that happened to get sick.

2) Student with bong and pot- was directly in Dan’s line of vision in video. Dan made no comment or reaction that he was all surprised by kid holding bong/pot.

3) unannounced visit after surfing Rincon - none of kids in video have wet hair, swimsuits, or post surf gear like knit caps, jackets etc. In fact outside the window it was pitch black yet kid puked 15 minutes after arriving from Rincon to Dan’s Rave Cave in Montecito. Furthermore, the ocean was filthy with mud and debris after the mudslide. Even the heartiest surfers weren’t surfing. Plus roads closed from Rincon to SB for two weeks.

3) the Moniker for the Instagram poster is “chunkydabz” a drug reference to concentrated cannibus. Clearly these were the party kids.

4) article glossed over Dan’s failure to report - dispite it being a crime.

5) Dan was not “cleared” - in the SB Independant article District rep was quoted as saying the investigation is continuing.

6) the Mad Board issued a statement yesterday. They were completely unaware of the details of the investigation and had no idea that Dan was “retiring” until after the announcement of his “amicable agreement” - if he planned on retiring why wouldn’t he have told the board more than two months before end of school year??

7) the video was uploaded on September 1, 2018 eight months after the mudslide.

8) Dan’s Rave Cave was on a MAD parents property in Montecito. It’s highly doubtful the roads were even open to his house assuming it was taped during the mudslide. In fact 101 from Rincon to Montecito/SB was closed for two weeks.

9) the pot was Dan’s roommate. So where is this roommates statement? Furthermore, the kids apparently only knew where he lived because one cleaned a room Dan rented on Airbnb. Wait.. does Dan have a roomate or does he rent his extra room in Airbnb?

There are so many other things wrong with the News Press piece I could go on but clearly the story is more BS coverup.

a-1558710890 May 24, 2019 08:14 AM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

Dans Rave Cave is common knowledge for years around Santa Barbara. Worst kept secret ever. The News Press story wasn't journalism, it was a press release and it was a joke. They should have done their research before printing it. Two words to describe the scene at Dans Rave Cave; Multiple felonies.

a-1558716047 May 24, 2019 09:40 AM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

Dudes getting stoned. Hanging out with a perceived cool teacher. Being bros. And in the blink of a wandering eye, they're suddenly abused children. Parents shocked from the lizard brain performance of necessity to protect, all while their guard was down. Oh that grey line of adolescence. Sure is a broad-stroked adventure and paradox. How far did he take it? How far had it gotten? Where was temptation leading? Bro. Put the bong down and get back to class.

a-1558722741 May 24, 2019 11:32 AM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

21908- First, the “abuse” that you are referring to has not been revealed yet but that took place between several students and Sweeney as Williams has not been accused of anything like that (yet). Second, you are describing typical teenage shenanigans (behavior they hide from parents) they get up to almost as a right of passage but as SOON as a teacher, director of the Academy no less, is put in the mix it becomes an illegal and immoral situation. His very presence condones the behavior. As a parent trying to teach my kids that underage anything isn’t ok, Williams not only said it was ok, he apparently also participated. That he was NOT fired on the spot and that the likes of Billy Baldwin lauded him afterward on stage makes me ill. Once they confirm this was NOT a lone incident I believe the tide will turn.

a-1558736880 May 24, 2019 03:28 PM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

6684- So you agree that this is just teenagers being teenagers and parents being overly protective? In your estimation it’s no big deal that a “cool teacher” partied with his underaged students? Thankfully the law is not on your side.

a-1558740286 May 24, 2019 04:24 PM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

I don't understand the numbering, but NO, you misunderstood my comment. I completely agree with the comment that starts with "First, the "abuse" that you are ...." If that is you, we are kindred spirits.

a-1558740325 May 24, 2019 04:25 PM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

I don't understand the numbering, but NO, you misunderstood my comment. I completely agree with the comment that starts with "First, the "abuse" that you are ...." If that is you, we are kindred spirits.

Factotum May 24, 2019 05:02 PM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

To 4:24 --best to use the time stamp numbers for poster identification when you are replying to a particular poster; or their name if given. Otherwise the sequences of follow-ups get quite confusing.

Fitness1 May 24, 2019 09:56 AM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

Let's not forget that Sweeney was simply 'escorted off campus' and allowed to resign, instead of charges being brought against him. Why did the school district turn a blind eye, so that he could move on and continue his predatory grooming behavior elsewhere? Sweeney's behavior constituted a crime, and nothing apparently would have been done if these other issues hadn't surfaced. Every parent should be concerned.

Geologist May 24, 2019 10:48 AM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

They turned a blind eye for the same reason USC, Penn State, the Catholic church and etc. did: to cover their you know whats. And yes, every parent should be concerned, but some seem more concerned about protecting the adults involved and the mad academy's reputation than the kids! And I simply cannot understand that. At all.

Fitness1 May 24, 2019 06:13 PM
Victims Retain Top Sex Abuse Law Firm in MAD Academy Scandal

Factotum, It sounds like the DA's office wasn't aware of anything since the school district apparently just let Sweeney go and never reported anything to the DA's office. At the very least, the school district is legally obligated to report and thus allow the DA's office to investigate before deciding if charges are merited. Sad all around. Met Dan briefly a few years ago and he seemed an upstanding guy. Hope the whole story, no matter how upsetting, comes out. Public and taxpayers should know.

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