Four students who claim they were sexually assaulted at an elementary school will share $825,000 from the Allentown School District.
The legal settlement came just one day before the case was set to begin in federal court in Philadelphia. Both sides said they wanted to avoid putting the kids through a long, traumatic trial.
The alleged incidents happened at Central Elementary from late 2003 through early 2004. Five students claimed a 12 year-old boy, already suspected of molesting other students, sexually assaulted them in a bathroom there. That student is now institutionalized.
"This is a case where basically the adults failed the children," said Jim Pfeiffer, an attorney representing the students.
The lawsuit claimed teachers and administrators did not thoroughly investigate claims of sex assault and did not report the alleged incidents to police or child welfare authorities in a timely manner.
"The adults failed to use and implement procedures that were in place," said Pfeiffer. "They failed to take seriously the allegations of sexual assault."
Allentown's school superintendent said the district is relieved to put the lawsuit behind it.
"The settlement is not an admission of guilt by any means at all," said Russell Mayo.
In court papers, school leaders have maintained they responded appropriately given the limited information they had at the time. However, even the federal judge overseeing the case called the district's response "wholly inadequate."
U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond threw out parts of the students' case earlier this year, but ruled that claims related to sexual harassment and discrimination could proceed. According to Mayo, the plaintiffs initially sought $15 million in damages.
Mayo said the district has learned many lessons from the case.
"We're not even the same district now that we were eight years ago," he said. "The key players in this whole episode are not even in the district. Many have retired, many have resigned, many have moved to other districts."
Both sides said they settled to avoid putting the students, now teenagers, on the stand for a lengthy trial.
"These children are still young," said Pfeiffer. "To have them come to court and sit through what could have been a month to two month trial, would be a very traumatic situation."
According to Pfiffer, one victim will receive $475,000; others will receive lesser amounts, based on how much abuse they endured. The Allentown School District will pay out $50,000 directly; the rest will be covered by the district's insurance policy.
Since this happened, Mayo said the district has added security at schools and increased sex abuse training for school staff. He said, as part of the settlement, the U.S. Department of Justice will also bring in a consultant to help with the district's efforts.