In sexual assault cases, L.A. Schools fight to win -- but not for victims
When it comes to handling sexual misconduct by teachers, the Los Angeles Unified School District loses even when it wins.
The district was let off the hook by jurors in a lawsuit filed by a middle school girl who’d been coaxed into sex, on and off campus, by her math teacher. The teacher was sentenced to prison for the abuse in 2011. But the district was absolved of blame in the civil trial over whether it had been negligent in supervising the teacher.
Last week a state Court of Appeal threw out that verdict and blasted the tactics the district employed: blaming and shaming the 13-year-old victim by casting her as a sexual sophisticate and willing partner.
“The district’s position is as outrageous as it is wrong,” the court declared in response to an appeal filed by the girl’s lawyers.
That appellate ruling ordered a new trial and took the trial judge to task for improperly allowing evidence about the girl’s sexual history and for setting the bar too high for jurors tasked with deciding whether the school district was at fault.
The mess has sparked predictable mea culpas from district officials. They fired the lawyer last fall — but only because he made light of the victim’s plight in a radio interview, not because his courtroom strategy was to malign the girl.
L.A. Unified’s general counsel, David Holmquist, apologized “to the young woman and her family, who were hurt by the insensitive remarks” that lawyer W. Keith Wyatt made to KPCC-FM (89.3).
But intemperate comments and hurt feelings are the fallout, not the problem.
The district’s win-at-all-costs strategy is a shocking example of either indefensible ignorance or callous indifference to the vulnerability of its students.
The facts are not in dispute.
In the fall of 2010, Edison Middle School math teacher Elkis Hermida reached out on a social networking site to a 13-year-old student and became her confidant. He talked about his sexual history; she complained about how strict her parents were. That led to months of hugs and kisses when the two were alone in a classroom.
Once, the teacher summoned her to the empty classroom and they had sex behind furniture he’d arranged as a shield. Three times he drove her to motels for sex. The abuse went on for seven months, until Hermida, then 28, sent the girl, then 14, a sexually explicit nude video of himself and she showed it to a friend.
That friend told a teacher, who reported the incident to authorities. Hermida was arrested at school the next day, and allowed to plead no contest to committing a lewd act on a child. His three-year sentence translated to 16 months behind bars. He was released in November 2012 and required to register for life as a sex offender.
What is at issue now is what sentence his victim — now 18 — will serve.
Her attorneys say she needs long-term therapy to heal, and the district should pay for that because previous incidents of “unprofessional conduct” — including frequent hugging of female students — should have alerted school officials that Hermida was unfit.
The district’s lawyers could have cleanly battled that claim: There had been no formal complaints and nothing overtly sexual about the young teacher’s demeanor.
Instead, they tried to dirty the victim and convince the jury that the case was about a young harlot looking for a payday.
Their expert witness was a psychologist who said the girl’s relationship with her teacher would make her more mature, because she’d gone “through experiences which most teenagers don’t have to deal with.” As if that’s a good thing.
That same psychologist would testify later for the district in another case that a 9-year-old girl with a low IQ wouldn’t need long-term therapy after being sexually assaulted by a boy at school because low intelligence acts as a “protective factor” that can mitigate the depression associated with trauma.
Wyatt was the attorney in that case too. But the jury saw through the blame-the-victim act and awarded the girl $1.4 million.
I understand the need for the school district to be fiscally prudent when it comes to negligence payouts. That’s the coldhearted logic behind Wyatt’s approach: Damages depend on the extent of the injury and the assignment of fault.
It’s more complicated to parse blame when the victim is a teenager who tells friends about a “quickie” with her teacher than when the victims are dozens of third-graders tricked into sampling their teacher’s semen, as occurred in the $140-million Miramonte case.
But no matter how you feel about the school system being on the hook for teachers’ misconduct, painting an eighth-grade victim as an equal partner in sex with her teacher is unconscionable.
That’s precisely what Wyatt did: “So what we’re here for essentially is to talk about who is responsible,” he told the jury. “Well the logical conclusion is Mr. Hermida and the plaintiff, two people who participated in the sexual activity.”
He apologized to the girl in court “for speaking of some of her conduct in an accusatory and harsh manner, but … we’re in a trial in which she’s come here to ask you to pay her for doing these things. She wants to be paid for doing something like that, that she knew was wrong.”
He convinced the jury that she deserved nothing for her pain.
I only hope the district took a similarly hard line with the lawyer when his bill arrived — and refused to pay him for doing something that he should have known is wrong.
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