The L.A. Unified School District has severed ties with an outside attorney over comments he made on a radio broadcast saying 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, officials said Friday.
General Counsel Dave Holmquist announced that W. Keith Wyatt, who has represented the district for 27 years, would be barred from any further legal work with the district because of his “inappropriate comments.”
Wyatt made the remarks this week to KPCC in defending his legal strategy in a civil lawsuit the student filed against the district, claiming that she suffered emotional trauma stemming from a five-month sexual relationship nearly four years ago with her math teacher at Edison Middle School.
In that case, Wyatt argued that L.A. Unified should not be liable for damages because the girl was mature enough to consent to sex and had a prior history of sexual activity. Those arguments sparked outrage and calls to fire Wyatt.
Monica Ratliff, a Board of Education member, said she had never been briefed about the district’s arguments in the case and did not support them. Board members Steve Zimmer and Bennett Kayser also voiced concerns; Kayser has asked that the issue be discussed during the board’s closed session next Tuesday.
“I was not briefed that LAUSD attorneys were arguing that a 14-year-old is mature enough to consent to sex with her teacher,” Ratliff said in an email Friday. “Nor would I, or anyone I know, support such an argument.”
Zimmer said that board members don’t typically approve courtroom strategies, “but the dismissal of Mr. Wyatt indicates the consequences of violating the tenets of decency for anyone who seeks to work for this district.”
In an email, Zimmer said: “I know we can defend the district against excessive liability without showing contempt for or casting blame upon victims of crimes.”
In his statement, Holmquist offered his “deepest apologies” to the girl and her family, saying that “maintaining a strong sense of mutual trust” with students and families was critical.
“Mr. Wyatt’s comments yesterday were completely inappropriate, and they undermine the spirit of the environment we strive to offer our students every day,” Holmquist said. “This spirit drives more than just our actions in the classroom, it defines how we approach all of our work — especially the way we discuss and handle the sensitive litigation matters that we deal with. These comments were a total violation of that spirit. Respect and empathy must be at the core of how we approach these cases, and Mr. Wyatt’s remarks did not reflect that commitment.”
Wyatt apologized for his remarks Thursday, saying that he did not represent the district and that his remarks were “ill thought out and poorly articulated.” He did not respond to requests for comments Friday.
He has represented L.A. Unified on such cases as the 2011 fatal stabbing of a South East High student by an ex-boyfriend. The district continues to retain Wyatt’s firm, Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt.
A jury last fall found L.A. Unified was not liable for damages in the case of the 14-year-old. District officials argued that school staff did not know of the abuse and that the eighth-grade teacher and student took pains to conceal their relationship until it was reported to a science teacher by the victim’s friend.
When notified, officials said, the district immediately removed the teacher, Elkis Hermida, from the classroom; he was subsequently convicted on criminal charges of lewd acts against a child and sentenced to three years in prison in 2011.