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Jury awards $45 million over alleged abuse of two autistic students by Malibu school aide

A woman looks over the back of a sectional where she is seated. A man stands next to her.
Charles and Nadine Wong at their Malibu home. They won a jury award of $45 million over alleged abuse of their two autistic children at a Malibu school.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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The family of two twins who are nonverbal has won a $45-million judgment against the Santa Monica-Malibu school system after suing over alleged physical abuse by a teacher’s aide who, they said, used hand sanitizer to inflict pain on the autistic children.

The school system declined to comment on the specifics of the civil case but is weighing whether to appeal the size of the judgment or the verdict itself.

The teacher’s aide, Galit Gottlieb, also declined to comment, on the advice of attorneys representing the school system. District officials would not say whether she is currently employed by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

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The district hired Gottlieb as a paraeducator in 2016 to assist special-needs students, and she has worked with other students since the period of the allegations, according to district officials. District officials said they received no other complaints about Gottlieb, either before or after she worked with the twins.

After a teacher reported the alleged abuse to authorities in January 2018, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department conducted a wellness check at the home of Charles and Nadine Wong, the twins’ parents, but did not charge or arrest Gottlieb, district officials told The Times. Contacted Thursday, the Sheriff’s Department confirmed that a wellness check was made on Feb. 1, 2018, but could not immediately provide additional information.

The verdict is equal to 23% of the district’s general fund budget of $196 million. Although the district has insurance coverage, officials said the size of the verdict could ultimately affect the school system, which has about 9,000 students and operates 18 elementary, middle and high schools and learning centers.

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In its verdict form, released this week, an L.A. Superior Court jury concluded that 11 district employees “should have suspected child abuse or neglect” and “failed to immediately report their suspicions of child abuse or neglect” to the county Department of Children and Family Services. Moreover, the jury concluded, this failure “was a substantial factor in causing harm.”

School employees are required by law to report suspected abuse and can face prosecution if they don’t.

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The jury also concluded that Gottlieb intended to threaten and harm the children with conduct they found to be “outrageous.” The jury did not find that Gottlieb intended to inflict “emotional distress.”

The damage award will help the family and deter schools in the district and elsewhere from similar conduct, said Omar Qureshi, who represented the Wongs.

“The damage award will help the twins with their future care needs and let this school district know that it should never cover up child abuse,” Qureshi said.

District Supt. Ben Drati said school officials take alleged abuse and the welfare of children with special needs seriously.

“We are committed to making sure that nothing like what has been claimed here could ever happen in the future,” Drati said. “We must always examine our shortcomings, but we are also determined to protect the well-being of thousands of our future students and ensure that an unduly punitive award cannot impact the quality of education for an entire generation.”

Attorney David German, who also represents the family, said the district’s response to the verdict “shows a total disregard for the safety of children. They claim the verdict was not supported by the facts, but the community members on the jury made separate findings that 11 individual district employees failed to make reports of suspected child abuse when any reasonable person in their position would have.”

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The incidents at the center of the case occurred during a four-month stretch in fall 2017, when the Wongs said they noticed their sons’ behavior deteriorate, according to court documents. The boys had become more aggressive toward them, their teachers and therapists, the parents said.

The boys, who have a form of nonverbal autism, were seven at the time, and the Wongs said they had been making progress: attending birthday and Halloween costume parties, socializing with relatives and friends and interacting with other children at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School in Malibu.

The complaint alleged that Gottlieb, who was assigned as an aide to the twins, used inappropriate methods to control their behavior in the classroom and on the bus to and from school. These methods included twisting their arms and putting hand sanitizer onto the twins’ dry, cracked hands, knowing it would cause them pain, court documents said.

A few employees saw Gottlieb allegedly use the sanitizer as punishment or hold up the sanitizer in a threatening manner, scaring the boys into submission, the court documents said. District employees had concerns about Gottlieb’s alleged actions and discussed the matter among themselves or even reported their misgivings to supervisors, but no one reported it to either the county or to law enforcement until early 2018, court documents state.

A bus driver first alerted the Wongs of her own concerns about how the twins were being treated, Charles Wong said.

“What upset me most about this was not only that the abuse happened,” Wong said after the verdict, “but the school knew about it and they hid it. People knew about this for months without telling us about it.”

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May 3, 2019

In documents filed with the court, the district challenged whether hand sanitizer was ever used in a punitive manner. The district also argued that there were perhaps three documented incidents in which Gottlieb allegedly held the sanitizer in a threatening manner. The district also challenged the account of the bus driver who had expressed concerns about the alleged use of unnecessary restraints and physical abuse.

The Wongs said that during the eventual wellness check from the deputy they were shown a report that a teacher had filed in January.

The Wongs said their children have yet to recover, requiring a transfer to a private school in the San Fernando Valley that specializes in helping children with autism. The Wongs said transportation services were recently cut for the family as school drivers were not able to manage their behavior.

The money from the judgment must be used to support the children’s ongoing education and health needs.

The lawsuit was filed in 2019 against the district, Gottlieb and six other district employees. The trial, which concluded in October, lasted four weeks and took place at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.

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