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Wednesday, Aug 13 2014 11:01 PM

SISC's final move was its only good one

By The Bakersfield Californian

Self-Insured Schools of California, the insurance company that represents the Kern High School District, has finally decided to drop its appeal of a $1.5 million award given to the family of an autistic girl who was allegedly sexually assaulted by another student in a high school bathroom four years ago.

However, this mess is far from cleaned up.

Education officials in Kern County must demand changes from SISC. And consequences for some of those who were involved.

The KHSD Board of Trustees, the Kern County Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools Christine Lizardi Frazier must toe that line. They must press for swift changes at SISC or take action to end the KHSD's relationship with the company altogether.

SISC bungled its investigation into the incident, which truth be told might never have happened had a few KHSD employees done a better job handling the situation on that day back in 2009. The Three Stooges-style investigation that followed might have played out differently if school personnel had followed a sound and responsible protocol in reporting the assault.

"This is a time to clean house and take the necessary steps to protect our students and the taxpayers," KHSD board president Chad Vegas said during a county Board of Education meeting Tuesday, one day before SISC dropped its appeal. Vegas is right, but action and pressure must now follow that sentiment. SISC's measures can't go unaddressed.

Attorneys for SISC argued in court that the girl's disability prevented her from suffering mental anguish as a result of the 2009 bathroom incident. In trying to make their point, SISC investigators secretly followed the girl around with a hidden video camera -- four years after the alleged assault. Did SISC officials really hope to glean any credible, meaningful evidence from this dehumanizing tactic? If so, it's downright baffling.

If SISC is retained, the company needs to send a strong and immediate signal to the KHSD and the community that it is better than recent events have portrayed. It needs to jettison or retrain the employees who were responsible for the despicable, secret video recording of the autistic girl -- someone stalked her through a Bakersfield Wal-Mart with a makeshift shopping cart-cam -- starting with attorney Leonard Herr.

Above all, communication between SISC and local education officials must improve. There is no defense for KHSD board members reportedly being in the dark about a $225,000 settlement offer proposed by Kern County Superior Court Judge Charles Brehmer in March.

The insurance company should inform the board of such details, even the minute ones. And the board should be asking for them. Trust the staff, sure, but verify; and retire any remnant of a rubber-stamp policy once and for all.

With many schools opening their doors next week, the KHSD must convince parents that students are being protected and that local campuses are safe. Nothing -- not $1.5 million, $225,000 or any dollar amount -- should distract the county's school boards and superintendent from that truth. The onus is on them to better protect students, especially those with disabilities.

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