President Trump has a new secretary of education and the headlines are overwhelmingly consumed with school choice issues. I’m hoping that another important topic doesn’t get lost in the new to-do list in overhauling the education system: sexual assault on campus.
School districts seem more concerned with protecting the perpetrator ― teacher, coach and administrator ― than the victim-student. This must change.
I implore DeVos to take a hard look at the school districts and campuses that have a long history of on-campus sexual assault cases and the methods that those schools and school districts have utilized to thwart the victims’ cases and discourage them from pursuing relief in the courts.
DeVos has a powerful weapon in federal tax dollars disseminated through Title IX, which requires schools to take action to eliminate sexual misconduct, not contribute to it. I hope she will use this hammer in addition to passing regulations that would require educational facilities to be forthright with all evidence pertaining to sexual assaults.
As a Los Angeles attorney specializing in sexual assault cases against public agencies and employees, I have seen hundreds of instances where evidence is withheld, hidden, thrown away and lied about in depositions and court proceedings.
I hope she will use this hammer in addition to passing regulations that would require educational facilities to be forthright with all evidence pertaining to sexual assaults.
Some of these cases were fortunate enough to have high profile media attention that generated a host of witnesses and tips; but many others were not.
Today, victims encounter an all-too familiar pattern when they accuse a teacher, coach or administrator of sexual assault:
- The school discourages the victim from going forward with a case by giving subtle hints of blame such as “You didn’t resist...”
- The victim is encouraged to go to therapy at the school in which case the therapist will downplay the event and turn over the notes to school attorneys. If a private therapist is used, the records are subpoenaed. Either way, the material is used against the victim in court. Subjects such as past sexual abuse, growing up in a broken home or low self-esteem will be used to infer that the victim is not credible or to deflect the victim’s emotional harm as being caused by some other incident in the victim’s life;
- The perpetrators are often sent to another school within the district, or resign with a letter of recommendation that allows them to easily get another job and continue their crimes anew. This is called “passing the trash” in education circles.
- Personnel files obtained by lawyers or police in search warrants are often useless and contain no record of past arrests, complaints or negative performance reviews. Files with this type of information are usually located in the principal’s office for grade school or the president’s office in a college/university.
This latter point received national attention involving one of my cases: teacher Mark Berndt of Miramonte Elementary School, who was criminally charged in 2013 with sexually assaulting young children and spoon-feeding them semen. Attorneys discovered that the Los Angeles Unified School District had destroyed a file five years prior that contained information about prior complaints about Berndt. Berndt was later sentenced to 25 years in prison and the district has paid more than $200 million to settle cases against 158 students.
While Mr. Berndt may be the poster child for such horrific behavior and Los Angeles Unified School District for the ensuing cover-up, it’s my guess that there are likely hundreds more cases out there across the nation where victims are facing a similar uphill battle to obtain justice.
Los Angeles Unified has had more major scandals, arrests and lawsuits of any district that I am aware of. If DeVos were to start anywhere with a new regulation requiring personnel files to contain all police reports, negative performance evaluations, allegations of abuse and any other damning information, then please start there.
It’s not fair for victims to go on a scavenger hunt for evidence that they are legally entitled to obtain.
A secondary regulation would be to prohibit schools from issuing recommendations to employees who have a history of sexual assault. I recently filed a case involving a teacher who received glowing letters from the district, enabling him to get another job despite past instances of assault. He victimized another girl at his new school.
Thankfully, some schools do have a zero tolerance for sexual assault and do a really good job with record keeping and firing the offenders. Other schools are so reckless that they have no procedures or protocols in place. This needs to change.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.