The San Diego Unified School District has been ordered to pay more than $1.25 million in damages to a former student forced to urinate in a bucket after her request for a bathroom break was denied.
A Superior Court jury on Wednesday decided in favor of the former Patrick Henry High School student who sued the district and a teacher over the 2012 incident she said fueled gossip, lewd texts, depression and a suicide attempt.
San Diego Unified denied her initial claim seeking $25,000.
“Something like this never should have happened to a 14-year-old girl just entering high school,” said attorney Brian Watkins. “She took the stand and told a really embarrassing story, she told the jury how this has affected her life and how she is still working through issues.”
On Feb. 22, 2012, the student told a classmate in a 25-minute advisory class she urgently needed to use the bathroom but was afraid the teacher wouldn’t give her a pass. Believing it was against school rules, teacher Gonja Wolf rejected the student’s request and instead showed her to a supply room adjacent to the classroom where she could privately urinate in a bucket and dump the contents in a sink.
The school district called the verdict disappointing.
“We, of course, are disappointed and will be considering in the next few weeks whether or not to appeal,” said district spokeswoman Shari Winet.
Lawyers for San Diego Unified and the teacher said in court Wolf never intended to embarrass the girl; rather, the teacher thought she had found a solution to what she mistakenly thought was a strict no-bathroom-break policy.
In a “lapse of judgment, she thought that was a good idea,” Katheryn Martin, an attorney representing the district, said in opening statements.
New to the campus at the time, 25-minute advisory classes were intended to provide study time and build relationships among students. Although teachers were told the short periods would be undermined by frequent bathroom breaks, the school expected them to use common sense, San Diego Unified attorneys told the jury and Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal during the trial.
But Wolf, an art teacher, took a strict interpretation of the rule, and had recently purchased a bucket to serve as a makeshift toilet in the case of a security lockdown. The teacher had even urinated in the bucket a couple of times herself while working late at school, her attorney, Fern Steiner, told the jury.
Once the Patrick Henry administration found out about the incident, the popular teacher with no record of discipline was put on paid administrative leave and never returned to campus.
The school also made clear to teachers that students should not be denied bathroom trips. Administrators apologized to the girl and her mother and extended offers of assistance, attorneys told the court.
But once word of the incident got out, the girl was mercilessly teased and forced to transfer schools twice, attorney Watkins said. Widespread media coverage of the incident — which included television news crews showing up at her home and school — scared the girl, who ultimately attempted suicide, he said.
The jury awarded the girl $1.25 million in damages and $41,000 to cover past and current medical expenses. The girl, who is now 19, went on to earn a diploma from a charter school. She has a job, and is still in therapy due to post-traumatic stress caused by the incident, Watkins said.
“She is very happy she was able to have her voice heard,” Watkins said of his client. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and this was one of the more peculiar cases I’ve had. The jury was fair and reasonable.”
Maureen Magee writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.