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Sunday, September 24, 2023
Sept. 24, 2023

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Nearly $8M settles lawsuit over sexual assault of Sumner special-ed student


The Sumner-Bonney Lake School district settled a lawsuit last week for $7.6 million with the family of a developmentally disabled girl who claimed she was sexually assaulted by a classmate because school personnel failed to protect her when she was a special-education student at Sumner High School.

In flickering video captured by a hallway surveillance camera, and entered in evidence as part of the lawsuit, one of the girl’s special-education classmates can be seen holding open the door to a boys’ bathroom and beckoning her to join him with a wave.

Inside the bathroom, according to the lawsuit filed in Pierce County, the boy sexually assaulted the then-17-year-old girl, who operated at the cognitive level of a 7-year-old. Another student walked in on the incident, captured on Jan. 6, 2020, and reported it immediately to teachers.

The girl’s teachers had noted the previous year that their “biggest concern is her overall personal safety,” including “understanding being taken advantage of from someone,” according to school records captured in the lawsuit.

But when school resumed, the school, due to budget cuts, didn’t have enough paraprofessionals to shadow the girl as she moved about the school, according to the lawsuit. The girl, identified in court records only by the initials J.H., told police that, before the January 2020 incident, the boy had taken her into the bathroom for sex multiple times since the start of the school year.

“You have teachers saying, ‘We’re concerned about her physical safety,’ but when they’re out of resources, these vulnerable kids just need to fend for themselves,” Gregory McBroom, the Seattle lawyer who represents the girl and her family, said. “That’s not protecting her.”

The settlement adds to the turmoil at Sumner High School, where separately six students have accused former boys’ basketball coach Jake Jackson of sexual abuse spanning years, despite at least two prior warnings to administrators about Jackson’s behavior. To date, four families have filed notices of their intent to sue the school district over its handling of the allegations against Jackson, who has been criminally charged over the players’ accusations and pleaded not guilty.

Citing evidence collected in J.H.’s lawsuit, McBroom said district and school officials failed to implement state guidance on protecting students from sexual abuse at school and often defied their own policies meant to keep students safe from sexual misconduct.

“The culture there is horrible for sexual assault and harassment. This administration is responsible for this,” McBroom said Tuesday in a phone interview.

The school district confirmed it had settled the lawsuit. “Student safety and education remain the district’s top priorities,” spokesperson Elle Warmuth said in an email.

By the Sumner-Bonney Lake School district’s own count, from October 2016 through March 2020 — a period that encompasses J.H.’s assault claim — 41 Sumner High School students were formally disciplined from October 2016 to March 2020 for sexual misconduct ranging from unwelcome verbal abuse to forceable physical contact against the victim’s will and on-campus sex, according to school district records that became part of the lawsuit.

Overwhelmingly, the school district reduced to short-term suspensions the disciplinary actions against these students instead of imposing the maximum emergency expulsions of up to 10 days, according to the records. That was the case with the boy who is alleged to have assaulted J.H.

Sumner police investigated the incident and forwarded their findings to the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which declined to file charges against the boy, according to Sumner city spokesperson Carmen Palmer.

Adam Faber, a spokesman for the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, said charges were not filed because they couldn’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The victim provided inconsistent statements, Faber said, and the suspect, 15 at the time, consistently said the sexual activity was consensual.

The Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) developed guidance for school districts to prevent sexual abuse in schools and provide resources for victims after the Legislature in 2018 passed what is called Erin’s Law. It recommends sex-education curriculum that is cognitively appropriate for special-education students to teach and reinforce personal boundaries, and for “monitoring hallways, restrooms, school buses and other environments that may pose a risk for bullying or abuse.”

The OSPI guidance cited U.S. Department of Justice findings that 82 percent of juvenile victims of sexual abuse are girls, and an academic study that reported students with intellectual or developmental disabilities are seven times more likely than their peers to experience sexual abuse.

In depositions for the lawsuit, Sumner High Principal Kassie Meath and the girl’s special-education teacher both said that the school did not have a sex-education curriculum for special-education students when the incident in the bathroom took place, although it now does.

The girl’s experiences at school have had a profound effect on her personality, according to her aunt, who adopted the girl and her older sister, who also has cognitive disabilities, as babies. Their mother had similar intellectual disabilities and was incapable of raising them.

“She used to be a very social person,” the girl’s aunt said in a video interview as part of the lawsuit. “Not anymore. I’ve noticed that when I ask if she wants to go somewhere or have friends over, she just wants to be alone in her room.”

After the bathroom incident, J.H. left school early to join a program that provides jobs and teaches independent living skills to people with cognitive disabilities. But when her former classmates joined the same program, J.H. was constantly reminded of her assault.

“They wouldn’t leave her alone,” her aunt said.

Now 21, she is in therapy, holds a job in the food-service industry and has moved out of Pierce County along with her family. She has welcomed the fresh start, according to her aunt, but the assault continues to haunt her.

“She has trouble sleeping,” her aunt said. “We’ve tried different medications, meditation, sound machines — anything — to get her sleep patterns OK again. She’s thought of suicide, thought of hurting family members, things she never experienced before.”

Her aunt said the proceeds of the lawsuit settlement will go into a trust that provides further assistance in her recovery, such as continued therapy.

“I’m hoping that she can do more community things, be more active in her community, do more therapy that helps her to get out in the world and feel more secure,” her aunt said. “I want her to be social again.”