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Jury Says Principal Retaliated : Courts: Panel finds that Valley teacher was falsely accused of child abuse after she complained about district's special education program to U.S. officials.

November 17, 1994|ERIC SLATER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the first lawsuit of its kind, a jury decided late Wednesday that a Tarzana school principal retaliated against a teacher after the teacher began complaining that the district was not following federal special education guidelines.

The jury deliberated just 1 1/2 hours before finding that Jacklyn Thompson--one of several individuals named in the suit as well as the Los Angeles Unified School District--had falsely accused teacher Sheila Hopper of child abuse.

Thompson filed charges with police when both she and Hopper worked at Tarzana Elementary School and just one month after Hopper had lodged complaints against the district with the U.S. Department of Education in January, 1990.

Police quickly dropped the case for lack of evidence, but the district suspended Hopper for 15 days without pay. A state hearing official later ruled the suspension unwarranted.

Wednesday, the jury ordered Thompson to pay Hopper $50,000 in general damages and $5,000 in punitive damages.

"I'm not sure that even covers my expenses, (but) I feel this is a major victory," Hopper said after the verdict was handed down.

Hopper, now a special education teacher at Darby Elementary School in Northridge, filed a federal lawsuit under the False Claims Act in April, 1993. The district was defrauding the federal government, she alleged, by accepting about $20 million annually for special education programs but not following requirements that went along with that money.

A judge dismissed the main body of the suit in September, but ordered a trial on Hopper's other allegation--that district officials retaliated against her for being a whistle-blower.

Although Thompson, now a principal at Virginia Road Elementary School in Los Angeles, was the only defendant singled out by the jury, Hopper and her attorney said the verdict was still an indictment of the district in general.

"The jurors I talked to said they wanted to send a message to the district," said James Fosbinder, Hopper's attorney. "We believe that this practice of retaliating against people who speak out is widespread in the district."

Howard Friedman, assistant general counsel for the school district, viewed the verdict differently.

"I see it as a vindication of the district as an institution," he said. "But I feel somewhat frustrated . . . that an administrator, who I believe has acted in good faith, was held accountable by a jury."

His office will now study who should pay the $55,000 judgment--the district or Thompson--Friedman said, adding the district could still appeal the decision.

With one win in her pocket, Hopper promised Wednesday to appeal the dismissal of the remainder of her original suit.

"I am going to shape this district up, as far as special education is concerned," she said.

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