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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 9, 2002

$300,000 requested to settle DOE suits

By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer

State attorneys have asked lawmakers for nearly $300,000 to settle five lawsuits filed against the Department of Education after children were allegedly assaulted, injured or harassed at public schools.

The state pays to end several suits against the department almost every year, and the money requested this time is more than in some previous years but far less than in others. In 2001, for example, the state settled nine suits against the department and paid $1,486,348. The year before that, $25,000 was paid to settle one suit.

The department operates more than 250 schools statewide with more than 183,000 students, and has more than 21,000 employees. Deputy Attorney General Charles Fell said those numbers present a certain amount of liability, but that he did not believe schools were broadly failing to correct dangerous situations.

"The cases seem to be somewhat unique rather than systemic," he said. "We do advise the department how to avoid similar claims when something happens. But we don't have a lot of claims for the population we have."

The largest payment planned for this year, $125,000, would settle a case in which a 6-year-old girl said she was repeatedly sexually assaulted in a Kipapa Elementary School bathroom in 1997 by a classmate of the same age. The suit sought $1 million in damages, but both sides agreed to the lower amount after court-approved mediation.

The girl's mother charged that school officials knew of the boy's history of behavioral problems but failed to protect the girl or tell the mother when the girl reported the last incident.

A school counselor testified that the girl did not seem seem seriously upset when she told on the boy, and that it did not appear that she had been harmed, according to court records. The girl said she had not tried to get away from the boy when he inappropriately touched her, and he accused the girl of similar behavior, the counselor said.

But the girl later indicated that other incidents had been more serious, according to the suit, which alleged that the boy had dragged her into the bathroom and assaulted her up to 10 times and threatened to hurt her if she told anyone.

School officials also refused to allow the girl to attend a different school once the assaults were discovered because those schools were full, her mother complained. She then paid more than $8,000 per year to enroll her daughter in a private school, but the settlement requires that officials allow the girl to attend a different public school.

Another suit the state intends to settle, for $75,000, stems from an assault on a boy at Washington Intermediate School by four girls in 1993.

A Circuit Court ruling awarded the victim $143,407 after finding that school officials knew one of the girls was dangerous and had failed to protect the boy. The state appealed that decision and the parties agreed to the lesser amount after mediation.

A third suit, filed after a kindergarten student was injured on playground monkey bars in 1998, will cost the state $45,000 to settle.

The boy suffered a broken wrist and elbow when he fell off the equipment after another student pushed him from behind at Mililani Uka Elementary School. His mother charged that the playground was poorly supervised and that the surface under the monkey bars was dangerous.

Another suit alleges that school officials violated a Waialua Intermediate and High School student's civil rights by failing to stop other students from repeatedly directing racial slurs and threats toward her while she was in seventh through 10th grades.

A student broke the victim's elbow during a 1996 altercation, but a school nurse declined to examine her and other officials sent her back to class, the suit charged. The state agreed to settle the case for $25,000.

The final suit was filed after a boy broke his leg on a slide at Kapa'a Elementary School on Kaua'i, and will cost $20,064 to settle.

The boy received no medical care at the school and his parents were not immediately notified, the suit charged. The boy suffers from a disease that leaves him unable to speak or walk without assistance, and his teacher did not know he had been injured, according to state attorneys.

Reach Johnny Brannon at jbrannon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.