Sacramento city school officials dropped the ball on child sexual abuse training, and that's why a jury awarded $4.025 million Wednesday to two girls who claimed they were molested by a physical education teacher, one panel member said after the verdict.
Despite developing policies to train both young students and staff on how to identify and respond to molestation situations, the district never followed through on the initiative much to the consternation of the jury, according to the panelist.
"They set the standards, but they didn't spend any money to have those standards met," juror Todd Wilhoyte, an emergency medical technician, said after the verdict. "In particular, they said they were going to do age-appropriate training for kindergarten through third grade on what to do about molestation, and they completely blew it off.
"Everybody was offended by that," Wilhoyte said. "They weren't there as their primary job to make sure that children were safe at the school."
The Sacramento Superior Court jury reached the verdict late Tuesday afternoon after its second full day of deliberations. The verdict was announced Wednesday.
The girls had testified in the three-week civil trial against the Sacramento City Unified School District that they were molested by a P.E. teacher at John H. Still K-8 School in Meadowview.
After the verdict, Judge Alan G. Perkins issued a stay on the entry of judgment until April 13, pending his decision on issues related to the special verdict form the jury used to reach its decision.
The aunt of one of the girls who was awarded the damages said she thinks her niece is "going to be really happy after this."
The aunt said the girl, whose story was disputed by the school district, feels her allegations have been validated.
"All what she said, it was not lying," said the aunt, whose name is being withheld by The Bee because it could help identify her niece. "She is telling the truth."
"Nobody listened to these little girls," plaintiffs' attorney Gigi M. Knudston said. "Nobody put all the pieces of the puzzle together. So that was our mission. We took this case and put all of the pieces of the puzzle together, and the jury made the right decision."
The two girls were identified in court papers as Jane Doe, who is now 15, and Susan Doe, who is 11. Jane Doe said she was sexually assaulted four times at the school by physical education teacher Abdol Hossein Mehrdadi, starting in 2004 and ending in 2007. Susan Doe said she was molested once by Mehrdadi in November 2007.
Jurors, in breaking down the verdicts, awarded Jane Doe $3.625 million. The panel assigned 63 percent of the responsibility to the teacher and 37 percent to the district. The split means the district would pay only about $1.35 million.
The jury awarded the younger plaintiff $400,000 and assigned a 50-50 responsibility split.
Mehrdadi, 63, denied molesting the girls. He was never arrested or criminally charged. He had been included as a defendant in the civil case but reached a settlement with the plaintiffs before the trial. No terms of the agreement were released because it did not include a payment of public funds by the district, according to Mehrdadi's lawyer.
Jane Doe's stepfather had been arrested and charged with molesting her. Attorneys for the district argued that his relatives coerced her to change her story and implicate "Coach M." As a result, the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office dropped charges on the stepfather. He has since been released from custody.
In a prepared statement, city schools' spokesman Gabe Ross said the district "has empathy and compassion for the terrible ordeal the victims in this case have been through."
"However," Ross said, "the district maintains that it was not negligent in any way in its handling of this situation. We are disappointed with the jury's verdict and will be looking into multiple post-trial issues that may be worthy of consideration."
Ross said the district is not acknowledging any wrongdoing by Mehrdadi, who is on paid administrative leave.
Wilhoyte said jurors overwhelmingly believed the girls were molested by the coach, as well as by the stepfather.
"They were just very believable," he said.
Wilhoyte chided the district for what he characterized as "a total lack of any kind of concern" for the plaintiffs. He described key witnesses for the district as "lackadaisical" and "not believable."
Largely, he said, the decision came down to the district's failure to train young children on how to respond to "what a good touch was and what a bad touch was."
"So that was a total failure by the school administration, to educate the children as to what could possibly happen," Wilhoyte said.