TACOMA, Wash. — A Tacoma jury has determined the Bethel School District failed to protect one of its most vulnerable students, in what attorneys are calling a "landmark" case for special education students.
The jury awarded $500,000 to a special needs student who was the victim of sexual abuse from another student. The victim's attorneys argued the school district should have known about the risks and done more to offer protection.
"This is a landmark decision for special education students," said Tom Vertetis, one of the attorneys for the student who has only been identified by the initials CKM.
Vertetis said that in 2012, CKM was sexually assaulted and harassed multiple times by one of her classmates while attending Bethel High School.
CKM's attorneys argued the Bethel School District administration knew this could happen, given the perpetrator's history at the Clover Park School District, which included a record of repeated sexual assaults on other students. But no one at Bethel High School was warned.
"They specifically detailed sexual assaults by this student. Unfortunately, no one in administration actually reviewed those documents, and none of the information was passed down to the frontline teachers," said Loren Cochran, another attorney for CKM's case.
As a result, the attorneys said the policies that require teachers to be informed about a student's disciplinary history were never put into effect, which put CKM, who already has difficulty communicating, at an even greater risk.
Administrators also failed to enforce the school district's sexual harassment policy, which allowed CKM to be abused throughout the school year, the attorneys said.
"What the jury found here, was that our client's constitutional rights to equal protection and due process were violated, because the school district admitted, in court, that this policy didn't apply to her, because she was too low cognitively functioning to appreciate unwanted touching, which is absolutely shameless. It shocked my conscience, and it clearly shocked the jury's conscience," said Vertetis.
CKM's story is unfortunately far too common for many students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. According to the Children's Psychological Trauma Center, around one in three young people who receive special education services have been abused in some fashion.
The U.S. Justice Department also found that from 2011 to 2015, people with intellectual disabilities suffered the highest rates of serious violent crimes, which includes rape and sexual assault.
CKM's attorneys said it's crucial to make sure school districts are not overlooking some of their most vulnerable students.
"Just because CKM couldn't say no, because her cognitive disability did not allow her to, doesn't mean she shouldn't be afforded any less protection from a sexually abusing classmate," said Cochran.
KING 5 contacted the Bethel School District for a comment regarding the jury's decision but so far has not heard back.