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Wednesday, May 28 2014 12:42 PM

Jury: KHSD owes family of assaulted autistic teen $1.5 million

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BY RUTH BROWN Californian staff writer rbrown@bakersfield.com

A Kern County jury Wednesday found the Kern High School District negligent in allowing an autistic teen to be harmed in a school bathroom, and awarded the girl's family nearly $1.5 million in damages.

The verdict in the more than three-week-long trial came around noon, after the jury of eight men and four women had deliberated over parts of three days.

The civil suit stemmed from an October 2009 incident when two autistic teenagers were found in an Independence High School bathroom naked from the waist-down. The trial had to determine whether what occurred in that bathroom was rape or consensual sex, made more difficult by the fact both students involved have the mental capacity of small children, with little speech skills.

The Californian does not name children who are alleged victims of sexual assault, nor relatives if doing so would make it possible to identify the children.

By identical 9-3 votes, the jury decided the 15-year-old girl had been harmed by the incident and that KHSD's negligence was a contributing factor. Only in criminal cases must votes be unanimous.

The actual award was a little more than $1.494 million, which includes economic damages for medical expenses plus noneconomic damages.

"It is a wonderful system that we have, and without it where would be if we were left to the safety decisions of people like the Kern High School District?" the family's attorney, Ralph Wegis said after the trial. "We would be helpless and abused."

Testimony showed KHSD employees waited more than five hours to notify the girl's parents -- after the regular school day had ended and the two teens had attended an after-school program together.

The family sued because it believed the incident was a sexual assault and felt the district should pay for any ongoing speech therapy and counseling their daughter may need. As the verdict was announced, the victim's stepmother wept.

Throughout the trial, which began April 28, the school district maintained what happened in the bathroom was not sexual and the girl was not harmed by it because the teens did not have the cognitive ability to understand it.

It was alleged the boy was standing behind the girl with his hands on her hips and pressed up against her.

Defense attorney Leonard Herr said the verdict surprised him.

"We will study the verdict and see what the next step is," he said.

In the meantime, the court award grows at 10 percent annual interest.

Wegis said he was prepared for any appeal, saying it was "like getting up for breakfast for us."

He called the case "inspiring" because the verdict said just because a child doesn't understand something, it doesn't make being victimized OK.

Wegis said the monetary award will make an impact on how KHSD handles future issues.

"This a good signal of the dignity of every human being and that to these special needs children, happiness in their life is just as important to them as it is to the valedictorian," Wegis said.

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