Palm Beach County School Board members harshly criticized their own legal team Wednesday for suggesting in court filings that four young girls were partly to blame for their injuries after being sexually molested 12 years ago by their third-grade teacher.
As they approved a $3.5 million legal settlement with the four former students, board members said they were stunned by newspaper reports this past week that revealed that a private attorney representing the school district in the case had argued that the young girls share blame for any trauma they experienced.
“I cried,” School Board member Karen Brill said. “We trust our outside counsel and inside counsel to represent us in a manner that aligns with our values.”
Board member Marcia Andrews said that she was “shocked and dismayed and heartbroken to learn recently that we were using this (legal strategy).”
The case stems from a lawsuit filed by four girls, all about 9 at the time, who had alleged they were molested during the 2004-05 school year by third-grade teacher Blake Sinrod, who they said touched them in private areas and instructed them to touch him.
School district police had investigated their claims and arrested Sinrod, who pleaded guilty to child-abuse charges and surrendered his teaching license.
In a court filing in February, the Conroy Simberg law firm of Broward County argued for the school board that the four girls, all students at Coral Sunset Elementary in Boca Raton, “were old enough to appreciate the consequences of their own actions and to be held accountable for them.”
“Through their actions and/or omissions, [the girls] conducted themselves in a careless and negligent manner, and such negligence was a contributing and/or sole proximate cause of their injuries and damages,” attorney Dale Friedman wrote in a court filing.
Friedman’s firm had been hired by the school board to defend the case, in which the four girls sued claiming emotional and psychological damages.
In an interview this past week, Friedman told The Palm Beach Post that the legal tactic, called “comparative negligence,” reserves the school board’s right to explore the children’s potential culpability in the case. But she said it was never her intention to blame the children.
She made the same argument in a tearful explanation to board members Wednesday.
“The focus has been on one sentence in a pleading known as an affirmative defense,” she said. “We absolutely understand the concern and the perception that came from the use and language of this defense.”
It was not the only time the school board has used the tactic in sexual molestation cases. The Sun Sentinel uncovered four other cases in recent years in which the school board raised questions about the children’s culpability in sexual-abuse lawsuits.
School Board General Counsel JulieAnn Rico declined to comment Wednesday.
Board members took no formal action to bar similar legal tactics in future cases, but board member Barbara McQuinn said that Rico had been instructed to keep the board more closely informed of the legal strategies that attorneys use in defending abuse lawsuits.
“They have to bring the cases to us,” she said.
Brill said that board members “had never discussed a defense strategy blaming (children)” but that they all would work to ensure it was never used again.
“I can personally assure you that I will ask deeper questions when cases are reviewed, and I believe we are all on the same page when we say never again,” she said.