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Because there is not a central database that tracks the number of school sex abuse cases in California, there is no precise way to determine exactly the number of teacher sex abuse allegations that are made or the number of such cases that have been resolved. How many children are sexually abused by their coaches, teachers, classroom aides, janitors and other people who work with them closely at school? Finding an exact number is difficult but the number of instances is far too high to be ignored. While trying to eliminate the problem completely may be laudable, but it is certainly not practical. The inability to create a “perfect world” should not be the reason for inaction. What can be done in the wake of ongoing reports of the most disturbing nature? A new school sex abuse case seems to get reported in the LAUSD on nearly a daily basis.
In the recent past, perhaps the most dramatic example involves the Miramonte teacher sex abuse scandal. But even more recently Lawndale, Whittier and Wilmington have also reported cases in which children were mistreated by adults while at school. The Boy Scout sex scandal, the Catholic Church and other high-profile cases do shed light on the problem and demonstrate that, sometimes, when large organizations are held accountable, they change their policies. But, often, the changes in policy are a direct result of a lawsuit. Holding individuals and organizations accountable for the actions of the adults under their authority is done when they are sued for damages. Unfortunately, this action comes after the abuse has already occurred.
While the perpetrators of sexual abuse at schools may be held criminally responsible, they may also be held civilly liable for the harm they inflicted. More often, however, the school district or organization that hired the predator must also be held responsible for their lack of judgment, poor hiring practices or lack of oversight. The school district or another defendant may be liable for the assault, harassment, infliction of emotional distress and other damages that the employee or school representative caused. Although monetary compensation may be significant, it does not erase the abuse. But punishing schools or other similar parties who do not prioritize child safety may be the only way to get their attention. Whether through settlement or jury verdict, a school district should take responsibility even if their guilty employee goes to jail.
In the Miramonte case, the Los Angeles Unified School District has settled with the victims for $30 million with each victim getting roughly $470,000. Often these types of cases do end in settlements to spare the victims the necessity of going through a lengthy trial that may only occur after the criminal phase is finished. Thus far, more than a year after his arrest, Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt has still not been tried. He is in custody and faces 23 counts related to abuse and misconduct. If the civil trial was to proceed after the criminal trial, the case may drag on for years and the possible closure for the child victims may be continually pushed into the future. For this and many other reasons, a settlement in such a case is advantageous.
Though seeking a settlement in these types of cases may be the most attractive option for victims and their families, they are often most attractive to the school districts as well. If a jury becomes involved, an even larger amount of compensation may be likely because the children were abused while under the care of school officials. A good plaintiffs’ attorney knows this and will likely maximize the amount of compensation they can seek. In a case last year involving a LAUSD teacher, Forrest Stobbe, a jury awarded a ten year old victim nearly $7 million. The district is currently facing more than 200 cases of teacher misconduct. Some of these will be negotiated through settlement but a few may involve large sums to individual victims resulting from trial. Unless LAUSD lawyers believe they can defeat the allegations, they will likely be aggressively pursuing settlements in many of those cases.
Each teacher sex abuse case is unique and whether a trial or settlement is the best option must be determined by an experienced attorney and by the goals of the family involved. But regardless of the particular situation, the time is now for school districts, children’s sports leagues, youth organizations and summer camp officials to save themselves money and prevent anguish by spending their resources on proper background checks and thorough oversight of their staff. The cost may be significant up front but it is far less significant than what they will pay if they are found liable for abuse.