Protecting Our Kids - What Parents Can Do about School Sexual Assaults
In this post we discuss the sensitive topic of school sexual assaults… Teachers, aides, janitorial staff, coaches and bus drivers assaulting our kids. First, we will look at a recent case from Colorado and then discuss the lessons from that case.
58-Year-Old Teacher Sexually Molests 9-Year-Old Girl
That headline is every parent’s nightmare. When we send our kids to school, it is with the knowledge they will be safe. Lately, national headlines remind us that isn’t always the case.
Adams County is a sprawling suburban county on the northeast side of Denver. It isn’t the place where one would normally worry about violence in schools. Sexual assaults by teachers, however, aren’t confined by wealth or population density. They can occur anywhere.
The Adams County School District 14 paid $5 million to settle civil claims that a former 4th grade teacher molested a 9-year-old student. The teacher, Gilbert Trujillo, is presently serving a 25 year to life sentence in Colorado for this assault and another involving a young student.
School District Knew Trujillo Was a Child Molester
The assault against the 9-year-old student took place in 2010. We are shocked it even happened as the school district apparently knew or strongly suspected that Trujillo was a child molester.
As early as 2007, the school knew that Trujillo was engaged inappropriate behavior with students. In 2008, he was ordered to not be alone with kids or write them notes. In one incident, a young girl was allegedly forced to partially remove her clothes.
Another parent told a CBS reporter,
“A lot of times he had the [classroom] trailer locked. Once when I went to pick my girls up about 10 minutes before school ended, I pounded and pounded and pounded on the door, but nobody ever answered. A couple minutes later he came to the door and unlocked it. There were four kids in there. I grabbed my two kids and went to the principal. The principal basically told me I was a lunatic.”
That a school board would keep a teacher employed while simultaneously requiring he stay away from kids is shocking. Equally shocking was that he was allowed to resign. The school board should have sent a clear message and fired him. Unfortunately, stories like this are not unique.
Teachers, like other government workers, have due process rights. When allegations of misconduct collide with a teacher’s due process rights, school administrators sometimes make bad decisions.
Despite counseling Trujillo to stay away from kids, he apparently, didn’t listen. The 9-year-old victim, who is now 18, was so frightened that she didn’t tell her parents until her family moved out of state. Only then did she feel safe to let her parents what happened to her. She says she was threatened by him and that is why she remained silent.
As the news of Trujillo’s crimes spread, other victims surfaced. There are believed to be 6 victims but he was only tried and convicted of sexual assault against two children. He was 65 when sentenced in 2017 and will probably never be released from prison.
Press reports say that Trujillo skipped his sentencing hearing. He is a coward who decided to stay in his cell rather than face his victims and their families.
The court certainly wasn’t impressed by his cowardice. Judge Robert Kiesnowski Jr. said, “He does not have the human decency to come into this courtroom and apologize to these victims and ask their forgiveness. The court is frankly outraged.”
At sentencing, a prosecutor told the court, “What you expect to hear from children is how their teacher taught them math skills or reading skills or how to love science, but that is not what these girls were taught. The defendant taught them fear, shame and guilt.”
Victim impact statements reveal that Trujillo lured his victims by giving the gifts and love letters. Once he had their trust, he would abuse his power as their teacher and molest them.
If that isn’t enough, he reportedly threatened the little 4th and 5th graders so that they wouldn’t report him.
As we have also said in this blog, seeing a monster like Gilbert Trujillo sent to prison may bring a sense of relief to the victim, the victim’s family and the community but justice involves much more.
Can I Sue the Teacher Who Molested My Child?
Child molesters are obviously liable for the grievous harm they cause. Locking them up protects other kids from the same fate but isn’t nearly enough.
Unfortunately, no amount of money can fix the damage caused by these monsters. Compensation, however, can certainly help defray counseling expenses and partially compensate victims for their pain and suffering.
Suing a teacher or other staff member for a school sexual assault isn’t particularly difficult but collecting damages is. You may “win” your lawsuit but winning often means receiving an uncollectable judgment against the wrongdoer.
Child molesters – especially teachers – usually wind up behind bars. The job prospects for convicted felons (who are also lifetime registered child sex offenders) isn’t very good. They can’t be around kids and they will certainly never teach again. Basically, they will be lucky to land a minimum wage job. They certainly can’t pay a multi-million-dollar judgment.
Schools Are Responsible for School Sexual Assaults
Are schools always responsible for the sexual misconduct of their teachers, aides, athletic staff and employees? No. But a school board or administer can be held responsible for failure to properly screen their workers, investigate allegations of misconduct or supervise their staff. Remember, parents in Adams County School District 14 had warned school administrators of their concerns. Why would a teacher ever lock himself a classroom with a child?
Once on notice, the school had a duty to ensure their students stayed safe.
Bringing a civil case against the school district has the added benefit of lessening the odds that the same horror happens to other kids. It also allows the victim to be receive compensation for his or her injuries, future counseling needs and pain and suffering.
A multi-million-dollar judgment also gives administrators incentives to do a better job. You can bet the school board will be pushing administrators to make sure this never happens again and parents (voters) will be scrutinizing the actions of the elected school board members.
The Adams County School District ultimately decided to pay rather than litigate. We appreciate that gesture, it meant Trujillo’s victim was not retraumatized by having to retell her horrific story again.
Media reports say that the school district is paying $1.5 million from its own funds and that its insurance carrier is paying $3.5 million.
Teacher - School Sexual Assaults on the Rise
Statistics show that sexual misconduct by teachers and school staff is on the rise. A 2017 study (2015 data) by Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation (SESAME) says,
- Of children in 8th through 11th grade, about 3.5 million students (nearly 7%) surveyed reported having had physical sexual contact from an adult (most often a teacher or coach). The type of sexual misconduct ranged from unwanted touching to sexual intercourse.
- This statistic increases to about 4.5 million children (10%) when other types of sexual misconduct are taken into consideration (e.g. pornography or exhibitionism).
- Teachers that suspect misconduct by colleagues are afraid to report other teachers.
Although they don’t want to ruin the life of a colleague, their failure to act often ruins the life of a child.
Signs of School Sexual Abuse
We are lawyers, not psychologists. We look to child psychologists to help us understand the indicators of school sexual assaults. [The author of this post, Attorney Brian Mahany, is a former police officer, board member of the nonprofit Family Violence Project and volunteer at the Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Center (silentnomore.org).] The following information about the signs of school sexual abuse comes from The Children’s Center for Psychiatry, Psychology & Related Services.
Small children are often afraid to report sexual misconduct, especially if threatened. Older students are sometimes of the shame they feel after being victimized. Collectively, this means it is difficult to get kids to step forward and report abuse. Parents and other teachers must therefore be especially vigilant in spotting school sexual abuse.
General signs of school sexual abuse include:
- Unexplained nightmares or sleep problems
- Refusal to eat, loss of appetite, or trouble swallowing
- Sudden mood swings, insecurity, or withdrawal
- A new or unusual fear of a certain person or place
- Exhibits knowledge of adult sexual behaviors and language
- Draws, writes, dreams, or talks about frightening images or sexual acts
- Thinks of themselves or their body as “bad” or “dirty”
- Not wanting to be hugged or touched
In teens or adolescents:
- Running away from home
- Drug or alcohol abuse or may be sexually promiscuous
- Either stops caring about bodily appearance or compulsively eats or diets obsessively
- Anxiety or depression
- Attempting suicide
If your son or daughter tells you of abuse, how you react is critical.
First, be a good listener. When you first learn from your child that he or she has been abused at school or outside of school by teacher, LISTEN. Now is not the time to overreact.
Second, make sure you do not blame your child. That should be obvious but we have seen many parents react in bizarre ways. Your son or daughter is probably very ashamed and full of guilt. There is no reason for them to be ashamed of course and as a parent, it is important to reinforce that they are not at fault.
Next, if your son or daughter was sexually assaulted, consider getting immediate medical attention, especially if there may be evidence of a crime that needs to be preserved. Secondarily, we strongly suggest you counseling for your child (and yourself too).
Not sure where to seek help? Start with RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network, your local sexual assault crisis center or a trusted physician.
Finally, report the crime to law enforcement as soon as possible. Suing the school board comes later, we want to make sure that these monsters are stopped immediately.
Many parents don’t want to believe that these horrible things are happening to their child. Consciously or subconsciously they question or deny whether what they are hearing is true. I know firsthand that when a parent doesn’t believe their child about sexual abuse, the consequences are far reaching and long lasting. Studies show that kids rarely make up stories about sexual abuse.
When Do the Lawyers Get Involved?
You would think as a law firm we would want you to call us first. We are happy to help at any time but the first steps are making sure your child gets the medical and counseling help she or he needs and law enforcement is notified.
Most schools are operated by county or local governments. That means the teachers, bus drivers and other staff are considered government employees. Depending on the state you are in, victims of sexual abuse usually have 1 to 6 years to file civil claims.
Some states have expanded the reporting time periods for children who are the victims of sex crimes. Many states, however, have very short time periods for bringing actions against governmental entities. If your child was the victim of abuse by a teacher in a private school, you may have more time to report.
Remember, seeking damages from the teacher isn’t likely to result in actual money. The deep pockets in these cases are the school districts themselves. And despite rules that give sexual assault victims years to file, those rules may not apply to the school district itself.
For more information, we urge you to contact as soon as possible. We can be reached online, by email [hidden email] or by phone 202.800.9791. All inquiries are protected by the attorney – client privilege. We have handles cases nationwide. If we can’t help you, we will locate someone who can.