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Girl Supports Bill That Would Protect Tipsters

School: Teenager and her family, unsuccessfully sued after she reported a boy's threats to authorities, failed in effort to get district's help on legal bills.

April 04, 2001|MASSIE RITSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Antelope Valley girl who was sued for reporting a boy's threats on her high school campus is supporting state legislation that would protect student tipsters from lawsuits such as the one that left her family with a $40,000 legal bill.

Kristina Tapia, 17, and her parents endorsed the proposed legislation, which comes after Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Frank Y. Jackson's March 13 ruling that the County Office of Education and the Antelope Valley Union High School District are not responsible for the family's legal expenses.

The costs were incurred when the Tapias successfully defended themselves in a defamation suit filed last year by the boy and his family.

A proposed bill awaiting hearing by the Assembly's Judiciary Committee would release students, their parents, teachers and school officials from liability for reporting "the possibility of reasonably foreseeable physical harm." Under the proposed law, defamation claims against informants would be quickly dismissed.

In an interview Tuesday, Kristina called the bill, AB 1717, "wonderful" and said she would go to Sacramento to speak in favor of the measure if asked by legislators.

"This will help kids like me so we'll be able to report violence in schools," she said.

Assemblyman George Runner (R-Lancaster), who represents the Antelope Valley, introduced the bill last month with Assemblywoman Charlene Zettel (R-Poway), whose district includes Santee, where two students died March 5 after being shot at Santana High School.

The U.S. Secret Service has found that in more than 75% of school-violence cases, the attackers revealed their plans to at least one fellow student. Based on Kristina's experience as an informant, though, "Why should they come forward when they're going to be faced with legal bills that are insurmountable?" asked her mother, Kim Tapia.

The Tapias are trying to figure out how to pay their $225-an-hour attorney, whose defense over the last 14 months has cost them a vacation and a new car, Kim Tapia said.

"Short of winning the lottery, I don't know how I could pay a bill like this," she said, adding that Jackson's ruling left her "totally in awe that the school can't stand behind my daughter when my daughter did exactly what they wanted her to do."

Stephen Hiura, an attorney for the County Office of Education, said Jackson "properly interpreted the law" by agreeing that Kristina was not an employee of the county office or the school district and, therefore, was not entitled to indemnification by them.

The Tapias have not decided whether to appeal Jackson's ruling. The defamation suit against them was dismissed in January, and the judge in that case has refused the plaintiff's request to reconsider.

Kristina's reporting in April 1999, days after the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, resulted in her Quartz Hill High School classmate's being charged with making terrorist threats and intimidating a witness. A Juvenile Court judge ordered the boy, then a freshman, to serve six months' probation. His expulsion from Quartz Hill High School was later overturned.

Kristina transferred to a continuation school after she fell behind in her credits at Quartz Hill, due, she said, to the investigation and lawsuit.

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