On the eve of a civil court trial, the Los Angeles Unified School District has agreed to pay $5 million to a young woman who was sexually abused as a teen by a middle school teacher.
Attorneys for the woman, who is now 20, say the payout is the largest single-victim settlement by the country’s second-largest school district.
The girl was 13 when Elkis Hermida, a math teacher at Thomas Edison Middle School, began grooming her, according to a civil suit filed in 2012 by the student. Hermida went on to molest the girl for seven months in his classroom and near the campus, incidents for which the educator pleaded no contest and was sentenced to prison for three years.
Attorneys for the school district fought the lawsuit and accused the girl, who was in eighth grade during the abuse, of consenting to the activity. Keith Wyatt, LAUSD’s outside counsel, said Hermida used no physical force or threat in performing the sex acts, arguing that the girl “consented” to having sex with her teacher, who was 30 at the time.
An appeals court, however, overturned the 2013 jury verdict, saying Superior Court Judge Lawrence Cho never should have allowed such evidence to be presented and ordered a new trial.
The landmark case led California lawmakers in 2015 to abolish the so-called minor’s “consent” as a defense in abuse cases and set the standards for what is acceptable evidence and argument in childhood sexual abuse cases.
“She was abused in the classroom and victimized a second time in the courtroom,” said John Taylor, one of the woman’s attorneys. “Her courage and persistence will make it easier for other abuse victims to pursue their claims without fear of being blamed for the abuse.”
Taylor said the settlement was reached Friday, three days before a new trial was slated to begin.
“She suffered from emotional trauma for years following the abuse, but the hurdles she was forced to jump through afterward are awful,” Taylor said. “The LAUSD is held accountable for their failure to protect a minor from sexual assault.”
Officials from L.A. Unified declined to comment saying the agreement has yet to be formally approved by the court. The district has previously insisted officials were unaware of any misconduct by Hermida. The agreement reached Friday includes no admission of fault by the district.
In the original lawsuit, LAUSD general counsel David Holmquist said the key issue in the case was not whether the girl bore any responsibility for her abuse, but whether the district knew — or should have known — that Hermida was abusing her.
Evidence in court proceedings, however, showed that schoolteachers and administrators ignored multiple red flags signaling Hermida’s alleged inappropriate conduct with female students. The teacher openly hugged female students as they entered his classroom and had them sit on his lap, court documents show. He also was accused of rearranging the furniture in class to create a hidden alcove, where some of the sexual abuse against the girl took place during school hours.
Ultimately, the jury decided the district was not liable in the case.
When the controversy ignited after the first verdict, the district’s top lawyer defended its position. But L.A. Unified eventually severed ties with Wyatt, who said in a radio broadcast that it was a more dangerous decision for a 14-year-old to cross the street in traffic than to have sex with a teacher.
“After years of fighting, our client can finally close this painful chapter in her life,” said attorney Frank Perez, who tried the first case. “Her bravery and determination are what led to the passing of SB 14, ultimately changing the law and giving victims like her a chance to get the justice they deserve.”