Dis­trict: 3rd-graders were re­spon­si­ble in abuse case

For decade, de­fense said mo­lested girls ‘neg­li­gent’

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - Front Page - By Scott Travis | Staff writer

For a dozen years, the Palm Beach County School Dis­trict in­sisted that four third-grade girls bore re­spon­si­bil­ity for al­low­ing their teacher to mo­lest them in 2005.

In court doc­u­ments, the dis­trict said the chil­dren were “old enough to ap­pre­ci­ate the con­se­quences of their ac­tions.”

An out­side lawyer hired by the dis­trict even called it a stan­dard le­gal de­fense, which the dis­trict had used since 2006.

The dis­trict said in Fe­bru­ary court pa­pers that the 9-year-old girls “con­ducted them­selves in a care­less and neg­li­gent man­ner,” which contributed to any suf­fer­ing. The stu­dents claimed emo­tional dis­tress and other in­juries after for­mer teacher Blake Sin­rod mo­lested them in 2005 at Co­ral Sun­set El­e­men­tary, west of Boca Ra­ton.

The de­fense was drafted by the Hol­ly­wood law firm Conroy Sim­berg. School Board mem­ber Erica Whit­field said a school dis­trict at­tor­ney who han­dles risk man­age­ment cases re­viewed it.

But school dis­trict ad­min­is­tra­tors would not di­rectly ad­dress who re­viewed the case. Su­per­in­ten­dent Robert Avossa re­ferred ques­tions to the Hol­ly­wood law firm.

Whit­field and School Board mem­ber Frank Bar­bieri both voiced shock that the dis­trict sug­gested the stu­dents might some­how be at fault.

“I don’t think a child can ever con­sent to be­ing sex­u­ally abused,” said Bar­bieri, whose dis­trict in­cludes Co­ral Sun­set.

School Board mem­bers Chuck Shaw, De­bra Robinson, Mar­cia An­drews and Bar­bara McQuinn did not re­spond to phone calls on Wednesday, but the school dis­trict re­leased a state­ment at­trib­uted to the School Board. “The board, with its at­tor­neys, must con­sider all le­gal de­fenses on a caseby-case ba­sis. How­ever, this cur­rent School Board has never taken the po­si­tion that a child could be im­plicit in their own child abuse,” the state­ment reads.

It took 12 years for the dis­trict to de­cide whether it bore any re­spon­si­bil­ity in the case in­volv­ing Sin­rod, who pleaded guilty to mo­lest­ing two of the chil­dren in 2006.

Sin­rod was fired in 2006 and his teach­ing li­cense was re­voked in 2008. He could not be reached for com­ment.

The School Board is ex­pected to ap­prove a $3.6 mil­lion set­tle­ment — one of its largest ever — at an Oct. 18 meet­ing.

Conroy Sim­berg has worked on the case since 2006 and its fil­ings have al­ways in­cluded the same lan­guage about the chil­dren be­ing old enough to take re­spon­si­bil­ity, said Dale Fried­man, an at­tor­ney with the firm.

She said the de­fense is called “com­par­a­tive neg­li­gence,” and it’s used in court fil­ings be­fore all the facts are known. She said the pur­pose was not to claim the girls were re­spon­si­ble, but to bring up fac­tors that could re­duce the amount of dam­ages the dis­trict might have to pay. For ex­am­ple, she said the for­mer stu­dents chose not to get psy­cho­log­i­cal treat­ment.

“We have never blamed these girls or given the ap­pear­ance of hold­ing the girls re­spon­si­ble for what their teacher did,’ she said.

She said this de­fense is com­mon but de­clined to name other cases in which it was used.

Jef­frey Her­man, a Boca Ra­ton lawyer who has rep­re­sented clients in about 1,000 sex­ual abuse cases, said he doesn’t re­call this neg­li­gence de­fense be­ing used against any abused chil­dren he rep­re­sented. He said it’s more com­mon for or­ga­ni­za­tions ac­cused of sex­ual abuse to lay blame on par­ents, claim­ing they failed to pro­tect their chil­dren.

“The real prob­lem with this [de­fense] is it re­vic­tim­izes the vic­tims,” he said. “There’s mean­ing and im­pact when you file things. It’s for­ever part of the per­ma­nent record that the School Board is blam­ing these third-graders.”

School Board mem­ber Karen Brill said: “It is my in­tent to en­sure that this type of de­fense is never, ever used again in the dis­trict,”

School Board mem­ber Karen Brill said. “The board had no knowl­edge that this was the man­ner in which the school dis­trict was going to de­fend the case, and in no way is it ap­pro­pri­ate. I think we’re all out­raged.’’

School po­lice in­ves­ti­gated Sin­rod in 2005, when one of the girls told her mother that the teacher had fon­dled her dur­ing a read­ing group. The girl said he touched her un­der her cloth­ing and in­structed her to touch his pri­vate area over his cloth­ing, ac­cord­ing to a po­lice re­port.

The three other girls painted sim­i­lar pic­tures to po­lice. They de­scribed Sin­rod in­ap­pro­pri­ately touch­ing them dur­ing a read­ing group or class­room movie. Some of the girls said they gave him neck rubs, and some said Sin­rod in­structed them to place their hand on his gen­i­tal area out­side his clothes, ac­cord­ing to a po­lice re­port.

School po­lice de­ter­mined there was enough ev­i­dence to charge Sin­rod in all four cases, al­though the State At­tor­ney’s Of­fice pur­sued only al­le­ga­tions in­volv­ing two of the girls. Sin­rod pleaded guilty but ad­ju­di­ca­tion was with­held after he met con­di­tions of his pro­ba­tion, ac­cord­ing to court records.

The par­ents of the four chil­dren filed a civil suit in 2006. Their lawyer at the time, Charles Bechert, said then that the par­ents be­lieved Sin­rod tar­geted the chil­dren be­cause they were im­mi­grants whose par­ents may not have known how to re­port crimes to au­thor­i­ties.

The case has gone through sev­eral amend­ments and ap­peals since then.

In Fe­bru­ary, after an­other brief in the case was filed, the school dis­trict hired a foren­sic psy­chol­o­gist to ex­am­ine the vic­tims. He con­cluded the for­mer stu­dents, who are now adults, were telling the truth, Fried­man said.

“As the facts be­came clear, we rec­om­mended a set­tle­ment,” Fried­man said.

If the case had gone to trial, she said, the firm would have ad­vised against us­ing the de­fense that the stu­dents were neg­li­gent. In an­other part of its de­fense, the dis­trict ar­gued that Sin­rod’s ac­tions were “un­known and be­yond the fore­sight of rea­son­ably pru­dent per­sons.”

How­ever, the par­ents’ law­suit says an­other par­ent had com­plained to a Co­ral Sun­set as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal in 2003 about a sim­i­lar in­ci­dent in­volv­ing a sec­ond-grade girl but was told the daugh­ter must be ly­ing.

Marc Wites, the lawyers for the four girls, ar­gued the school dis­trict failed to in­ves­ti­gate or take ac­tion against Sin­rod when the 2003 al­le­ga­tions sur­faced.

“The real prob­lem with this [de­fense] is it re­vic­tim­izes the vic­tims.” Jef­frey Her­man, Boca Ra­ton lawyer

Sin­rod .

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