Twelve years after third-grade girls alleged that they were molested by their teacher, the Palm Beach County School District is expected to pay a $3.6 million settlement—this is after the district’s defense suggested that the victims were behaving in a way that contributed to their sexual assault.
In a 2006 civil suit, the school district claimed the four third-grade girls “conducted themselves in a careless and negligent manner” and that they were “old enough to appreciate the consequences of their actions.” As most third-graders are 8- or 9-years-old, that’s a particularly troubling defense. Even the teacher, Blake Sinrod, pleaded guilty to child abuse charges in May 2006, and he lost his teaching license in 2008. And yet it took over a decade for the district to settle.
The Palm Beach County School Board has since distanced itself from its legal defense, arguing that it doesn’t reflect the board’s current members.
“The board, with its attorneys, must consider all legal defenses on a case-by-case basis. However, this current School Board has never taken the position that a child could be implicit in their own child abuse,” the board said in an official statement obtained by the Sun Sentinel.
According to attorney Dale Friedman, who works with the law firm defending the school district, the district’s argument is a “comparative negligence” defense tactic. In short, in order to reduce settlement payments, the school files a response that questions the third-graders’ actions. Friedman asserts this isn’t necessarily blaming the victims, although it certainly seems to question everything they’ve done before, during, and after the attack.
“We have never blamed these girls or given the appearance of holding the girls responsible for what their teacher did,” Friedman told the Sentinel.
One lawyer who handles sexual abuse cases, Jeffrey Herman, claims the defense is uncommon. If anything, blame is sometimes placed on parents, as targeting the children themselves can traumatize abuse survivors.
“The real problem with this [defense] is it re-victimizes the victims,” Herman said to the Sentinel. “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.”
One school board member, Karen Brill, called the defense inappropriate, and she vows to prevent it from being used again.
“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,” Brill told the Sentinel. “I think we’re all outraged.”