In the wake of a federal magistrate’s opinion that the Susquehanna Twp. School District acted with “deliberate indifference” to a student’s claim that she was sexually assaulted by a teacher, the district recently paid $600,000 to settle the case.
Additionally, the district has agreed to conduct annual sexual harassment training for all teachers and students as part of the settlement with the student, who claimed former drivers education teacher James D. Frank forced her to perform a sex act in 2006.
A Dauphin County court acquitted Frank of assault in August 2007. Frank cannot recover his teaching license since surrendering it in 2008, days before a pending revocation hearing at the Pennsylvania Department of Education. His attorney said at the time that Frank gave up the fight for health reasons.
Under the settlement, provided to The Patriot-News following a right-to-know request, Frank and retired Susquehanna Twp. High School Principal Kermit Leitner must pay $500 to a child-abuse-prevention or animal-protection charity. The district’s insurer will cover the $600,000 payment.
In her suit, Frank’s accuser claimed that her security and privacy had been violated, and the district maintained a “hostile educational environment” and retaliated against her for reporting sexual harassment. The harassment included Leitner’s letter to district employees soliciting funds for Frank’s defense, and students wearing T-shirts supporting Frank, she claimed.
The student, who was 16 at the time, claimed in the lawsuit that the hostility she encountered forced her to leave school for homebound instruction. The student, who is 22 now, received her diploma from Susquehanna Twp. High School and is now in college, said her attorney, Jason Kutulakis.
Sandusky was charged in November with sexually abusing several boys over more than a decade, and two Penn State officials were charged with lying to an investigating grand jury about an incident that was reported on campus in 2002. Amid criticism that school officials did not respond appropriately, the university’s board fired former President Graham Spanier and legendary head football coach Joe Paterno.
Frank did not return calls for comment. District solicitor P. Daniel Altland called the settlement “a compromise” and wouldn’t comment on the district’s performance as described by the judge.
“It’s not really an admission or acknowledgment whether it’s indifference, assault, or whatever,” Altland said.
The settlement was reached in December, ending the case, which had been filed in U.S. Middle District Court in 2009. The district, Frank and his wife, and other school officials were parties in the lawsuit.
In July, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mildred E. Methvin rejected the defendants’ motions to dismiss the lawsuit, finding merit in the accuser’s claims that she endured “quid pro quo sexual harassment,” she reported her alleged assault to proper authorities, and the district responded with “deliberate indifference.”
District officials had warned Frank about violating a policy forbidding behind-the-wheel, or BTW, driving lessons for one student at a time, the court found. And in the 1999-2000 school year, Frank had to apologize after he asked to see a female student’s nipple ring. The district took a “lackadaisical approach” to correcting Frank’s conduct, Methvin wrote.
“Had a formal reprimand or correction been given, or had school authorities followed-up to ensure compliance with the BTW policy, such behavior may have stopped and plaintiff’s assault arguably could not have occurred,” Methvin’s order read.
Frank’s accuser “will tell you that she was assaulted twice – once sexually, and the second time, the way it was handled, and it was equally as damaging,” said Kutulakis, of Abom & Kutulakis, Carlisle. “Kids should go to school, and that should be a safe haven for them.”
Parents should also know that “there are skilled people in place” to properly handle reports of wrongdoing, said Kutulakis, who earlier this month was appointed by the state House to Pennsylvania’s Task Force on Child Protection.
Susquehanna Twp. School District Superintendent Susan M. Kegerise said she couldn’t say if the settlement amounts to an admission of guilt because she didn’t work there when the alleged assault and harassment were reported.
In response to the settlement, the district is planning programs this year to educate younger students on bullying, and older students and staff on sexual harassment, Kegerise said. For future years, the district will build a system that ensures consistent responses district-wide to sexual harassment, she said.
“It is an ongoing issue at all districts, keeping aware and keeping the dialog open,” she said. “It’s not an easy issue to tackle. What can we do to improve that as a district, as a staff? That’s what we’re going to work on.”
Still, the parties differ on some next steps. Kutulakis praised Kegerise for improving sexual harassment policies and said that federal law requires appointment of a Title IX coordinator – a “point person” known throughout the district — to administer sexual harassment cases, which fall under the federal law banning gender discrimination in schools.
Kegerise said the district doesn’t “have an official Title IX coordinator. I don’t know any district that does.” All district guidance counselors are trained in dealing with child abuse claims, and all faculty members are updated every year on laws mandating reporting of suspected child abuse, she said.
The district’s existing harassment policy will be reviewed as part of ongoing policy upgrades, “to glean what could have been done differently” Kegerise said.
“You always learn from mistakes,” she said.
School Board President Jesse Rawls, Sr., said the district’s insurer determined the settlement payout, and the board hasn’t yet discussed policy changes or sexual harassment training.
The payout has not affected the district’s insurance premiums “right now,” and any future impact can’t be predicted, Kegerise said. The district’s policy covering the settlement was through the Pennsylvania School Boards Association Insurance Trust and cost $19,664, said Business Manager Michael Frentz. The district’s current policy, under a different insurer, expires June 30, he said.