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School District Won't Appeal Assault Verdict

Education: Boy who was molested at school was awarded $1.2 million. Board also says that the private law firm hired by the district will not be used in similar cases

October 08, 1996|AMY PYLE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Disavowing the defense techniques used on its behalf, the Los Angeles Board of Education unanimously voted Monday not to appeal a $1.2-million jury verdict against the school system for negligence in handling the molestation of a third-grader.

After a three-week investigation of the legal case stemming from the 1994 incident at the 59th Street School, the board also agreed to exclude the private law firm hired to defend the district from any future sexual assault cases.

The firm, Schell & Delamer, devised a defense that blamed the family of the victim--an 8-year-old boy--for worsening his trauma.

Supt. Sid Thompson said the internal review determined that, "while technically competent and legally appropriate," the defense was not "consistent with the child-sensitive policy of this district."

Thompson said he is still reviewing the actions taken by individual employees and the process that left high-level administrators largely in the dark about the incident and the lawsuit.

One of the victim's attorneys, Philip Michels, praised the district's action Monday, but said officials should take additional steps to prevent a repeat of such incidents.

"People up at higher levels . . . should've been informed, not so much to keep the price down, but to help the child," Michels said. "You have a victim out there who got absolutely no help. . . . The effort should be . . . more on 'help our child.' "

The lawsuit was filed by the parents of a third-grader who was sexually assaulted in the elementary school's bathroom by a severely disturbed 11-year-old.

The older boy, a special education student, had transferred to the district eight months earlier, but records detailing his history of violence and sexually inappropriate behavior, forwarded by his Arkansas school, apparently were not reviewed by the 59th Street School's psychologist.

The boy's placement in a regular classroom was not reassessed within a month of his arrival, as required by state law, nor was any dramatic action taken when he was arrested a month before the assault for molesting another boy in similar fashion. Thompson criticized that inaction in an interview outside the board chambers.

"At least you do some kind of formal review and take some action," he said. "That was a glaring error."

Thompson said he hoped such mistakes would be avoided in the future as the district addresses methods of assessing special education students as part of a multimillion-dollar settlement of a class-action suit.

The superintendent also said the legal defense used in the case has prompted him to investigate ways to increase the district's oversight of outside law firms, especially in sensitive cases.

In fighting the lawsuit, the defense called witnesses who pointed up the inconsistencies in the victimized boy's accounts--common among sexual assault victims--and suggested that his trauma was exacerbated by such things as his mother crying whenever the molestation was mentioned.

The defense attorneys also called teachers to testify that the 8-year-old preferred to play with girls and shunned rough sports for games such as hopscotch and jump-rope.

One expert witness for the defense, Westside psychiatrist Sara Latz, was singled out by Thompson as someone the district will not use in future cases. Latz, who testified she was paid $27,000 for her work on the case, said the victim had not been allowed to work through all his feelings about the incident because his mother was so horrified by it.

"I don't think it's possible to rule out that he could have had some excitement about what happened," she said, according to trial transcripts.

Latz said the boy "may have been kind of thrilled that an older boy would have selected him and paid special attention to him."

Latz could not be reached for comment Monday, but has complained in the past that her testimony was taken out of context.

The 11-year-old eventually pleaded no contest to two lewd conduct charges and was sent to a special private school for disabled and disturbed children.

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