Warning ignored? Schools may pay $3.5M in teacher sex assault case

The Palm Beach County School Board is set to pay more than $3.5 million to four young women who say they were sexually assaulted more than a decade ago by their third-grade teacher – actions they contend might’ve been avoided if administrators had heeded complaints about the man two years earlier.

It’s a contention the school district has until now disputed.

The district’s attorneys previously have argued among other things that the complaint wasn’t made – despite witness testimony to the contrary, and that a complaint registered with an assistant principal wasn’t sufficient when it came to claiming negligence on the district’s part.

At one point, the district, in court filings, appeared to blame the victims, writing that the “plaintiffs were old enough to appreciate the consequences of their own actions and to be held accountable for them. Through their actions and/or omissions, plaintiffs conducted themselves in a careless and negligent manner, and such negligence was a contributing and/or sole proximate cause of their injuries and damages.”

Wednesday afternoon the district released a statement addressing that legal tactic: “The Board, with its attorneys, must consider all legal defenses on a case by case basis, however, this current School Board has never taken the position that a child could be implicit in their own child abuse.”

In 2004-05, the four, who were about 9 years old at the time, attended Coral Sunset Elementary in Boca Raton. Their families were unaware of any complaints against the teacher, Blake Sinrod. As the school year came to a close, a girl told her mother that the teacher touched her between her legs and on her chest, according to news accounts from that time.

By the fall, Sinrod pleaded guilty to child-abuse charges and adjudication was withheld. He agreed to surrender his teaching license and was sentenced to five years’ probation.

Somewhere along the way, the families discovered that two years previous to their complaints, another girl and her parents alerted the assistant principal to the same behavior. By 2006, the four families had filed a lawsuit which eventually claimed the district failed to act on that complaint and was negligent.

The suit filed on behalf of “Janie Doe” Nos. 1 through 4 described the hurdles met by the first family to complain – parents “Mr. and Mrs. O.”

According to the suit, the parents went to the school asking to see the principal only to learn he was on vacation. So they spoke to the assistant principal. In depositions, Mr. O said the assistant principal told him Sinrod was a highly recommended teacher and she thought his daughter was “lying.” She denied his request to move the girl to another class. In the end, Mr. O sold his home and moved out of the county, the suit said.

Later the assistant principal denied meeting the parent. But the teacher himself recalled being in the meeting. He also recalled her telling him twice that day not to touch the girl or any other students again – direction, he admitted in a deposition, that he did not follow.

District policy “strongly encouraged” complaints of sexual harassment by teachers on students, but no paperwork from this complaint was found. Principals or their designees had the authority to oversee the filling out of the complaint form.

Whatever followed, Sinrod was still teaching two years later when the Janie Does arrived in his third-grade class.

The suit that followed Sinrod’s arrest and plea bounced around in appeals for several years as the families and the district argued about whether the district could be sued under the federal Title IX law, which prohibits sex discrimination by governments that receive federal education money. The argument went to the Florida Supreme Court this year, where the ruling favored the families. That ruling cleared the way for a trial. Instead, the two sides appear to be settling.

“The young women and their families are pleased with the result, relieved the case is finally coming to an end,” said attorney Marc Wites. Though the young women were not eager to rehash the story in the media, he said they hope it “will result in discussions among parents, children and teachers.” Families should not take for granted that their school is “100 percent safe,” he said.

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