Thursday 12 October 2017

Florida school district blamed third-graders who were molested

For a dozen years, the Palm Beach County School District insisted that four third-grade girls bore the responsibility for allowing their teacher to molest them in 2005.
In court documents, the district said the children were old enough to know better than to listen to their teacher when he told them to fondle him.
That defense, made in response to a lawsuit from the girls' families, had at least two Palm Beach County School Board members expressing outrage Wednesday.
"I don't think a child can ever consent to being sexually abused," said School Board member Frank Barbieri, whose district includes Coral Sunset Elementary west of Boca, where the molestations took place. "The School Board never authorized such a defense."
School Board member Erica Whitfield said she was told by district officials that the defense was a mistake.
The contention that the victims were responsible "is not how I personally feel and I don't think that's how the board feels," she said.
It took 12 years for the district to decide whether it bore any responsibility in the child abuse case involving Blake Sinrod, a third-grade teacher at Coral Sunset Elementary. He pleaded guilty to molesting two of the children in 2006.
The district is now poised to pay $3.6 million to settle the lawsuit.
The defense was drafted by an outside law firm, not by district staff or School Board members, said Dale Friedman, an attorney with the Hollywood firm Conroy Simberg, which has worked on the case since 2006.
The defense centered on the contention the children were "old enough to appreciate the consequences of their actions," the court documents stated.
That line of defense has been included since the lawsuit was first filed, Friedman said.
"We have never blamed these girls or given the appearance of holding the girls responsible for what their teacher did," she said.
She said the defense is called "comparative negligence," and it's used in court filings before all the facts are known.
In February, after another brief in the case was filed, the school district hired a forensic psychologist to examine the victims. He concluded the former students, who are now adults, were telling the truth, Friedman said.
She said the lawyers would have recommended withdrawing this particular defense had the case gone to trial.
The settlement is one of the school district's largest.
School police investigated Sinrod in 2005, when one of the girls told her mother that the teacher had fondled her during a reading group. The girl said he touched her under her clothing and instructed her to touch his private area over his clothing, according to a police report.
The three other girls painted similar pictures to police. They described Sinrold inappropriately touching them during a reading group or classroom movie. Some of the girls said they gave him neck rubs, and some said Sinrod instructed them to place their hand on his genital area outside his clothes, according to a police report.
The parents of the four children filed a civil suit in 2006. Their lawyer at the time, Charles Bechert, said then that the parents believed Sinrod targeted the children because they were immigrants whose parents may not have known how to report crimes to authorities.
Sinrod was fired in 2006 and his teaching license was revoked in 2008.
The case has gone through several amendments and appeals since then. The School Board is expected to approve the $3.6 million settlement on Oct. 18. The amount was negotiated during mediation, said Marc Wites, their current lawyer.
Sinrod could not be reached for comment.
"I would say the girls and their families are relieved that this case is over," Wites said. "Although they will be unhappy this case is in the news again, they hope the publication of the story will put parents and teachers and students on alert. One would think a school would be a place where children could be safe but unforgettably that's not always the case."
School police determined there was enough evidence to charge Sinrod in all four cases, although the state attorney's office disagreed and pursued only allegations involving two of the girls. Sinrod pleaded guilty to the child abuse charges but adjudication was withheld after he met conditions of his probation, according to court records.
As part of its defense against the lawsuit, the district argued that Sinrod's actions were "unknown and beyond the foresight of reasonably prudent persons."
However, the parents' lawsuit says another parent had complained to a Coral Sunset assistant principal in 2003 about a similar incident involving a second-grade girl.
The assistant principal told those parents that Sinrod was a "highly recommended teacher" and that their daughter must be lying, the parents alleged in court filings.
The parents of that child moved away from Florida and didn't pursue criminal charges or a lawsuit until 2010. Their case was dismissed after courts ruled the statute of limitations had passed.
Lawyers for the four girls in the 2005 case argued that the school district failed to investigate or take proper action against Sinrod when the 2003 allegations surfaced.

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