BRENTWOOD -- The Brentwood Union School District will pay $8 million to settle a lawsuit over its handling of a special education teacher who was convicted of child abuse yet allowed to remain in the classroom.
The district's insurance will pay the families of eight special needs children who reportedly were physically and verbally abused by the same teacher at Loma Vista and Krey elementary schools, bringing to a close the scandal that rocked the district and led to the firing of a superintendent and departures of other employees.
In announcing the settlement Wednesday night at its regularly scheduled school board meeting, officials said they are trying to change the culture within the district with such measures as adding annual training for employees on how to properly report suspicions of child abuse.
After trustees unanimously approved the settlement in closed session, Superintendent Dana Eaton read a statement: "We have learned painful, necessary lessons about the culture we must have in place if we are to be worthy of the trust parents place in us."
In August, eight families sued teacher Dina Holder, as well as former Loma Vista Elementary Principal Lauri James, former Superintendent Merrill Grant, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Margaret Kruse, Director of Special Education Margo Olson and former Director of Special Education Jean Anthony. The suit asserted that Holder violated the children's constitutional rights by using "unjustified and unreasonable force" against them and that district employees failed to report abuse suspicions to proper authorities in a timely manner as required by law. It also argued that students were unable to report the abuse themselves because of their age or limited verbal skills.
Holder was at the center of an earlier lawsuit that the district settled in December 2012 for $950,000. In 2010, she kicked a nonverbal autistic 5-year-old boy and called him a foul name when he did not follow her instructions.
She subsequently pleaded no contest to a charge of child cruelty, and the settlement called for her resignation.
However, when district officials learned of the other abuse accusations, instead of terminating her, they transferred Holder to Krey Elementary, where the abuse accusations continued. Administrators never told the parents of Holder's other students at Loma Vista and Krey about the criminal charges, the complaint asserts.
Families only discovered the earlier abuse when this newspaper reported the settlement of the first lawsuit in January 2013.
"You second-guess yourself and everything you've done previously," said Jennifer Plummer, of Discovery Bay, a plaintiff in the suit along with her daughter Jordyn, who is now 9. "Hindsight is 20/20. I wish I could have done more and questioned more."
As a toddler, Jordyn attended Holder's class at her first elementary school and transferred to her second school, too.
"I hope that in doing this it raises other families' awareness and that the district won't ever repeat this," Plummer said, sitting in her attorney's office. "We have to fight for kids who can't fight for themselves."
Paige Lark, 44, of Brentwood, said she looked through a classroom door and saw Holder shaking her nonverbal, 3-year-old Down syndrome son like a "rag doll" while he signed "All done" over and over.
"We're hoping that through this, because it's such a significant ruling, it will put pressure on districts," she said. "The message to special education parents is that they're not alone. Parents just have to start talking to each other."
Added husband Jim Lark: "We're hoping that this is the bottom and we're going up from here."
Following the first lawsuit, the district began hammering home a zero-tolerance stance toward abusive conduct.
Every Brentwood Union employee, part-time workers and substitute teachers included, has taken an online course that spells out their responsibility to notify law enforcement or the county's Child Protective Services. In addition, the district this past spring engaged the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Contra Costa County to provide ongoing in-person training for everyone except substitute teachers. From now on, all employees will receive one of these two forms of training each year.
"I think everybody is absolutely clear that their responsibility is to protect the children," Eaton said.
It used to be that new hires simply signed an acknowledgment that they are mandated reporters, he said, and principals would remind their staff of the same at the start of each school year.
The Brentwood agreement follows an Antioch Unified lawsuit settlement last month that will pay out $8 million to eight families of kindergarten special education students. That case involves former Mno Grant Elementary School special education teacher Theresa Allen-Caulboy, who has pleaded not guilty in criminal court to abusing six students, some of whom are autistic and nonverbal. The Antioch families asserted that administrators failed to report abuse suspicions to proper authorities as well.
In both cases, insurance will cover the payouts.
"The allegations in the two cases are frighteningly similar," said Todd Boley, one of the attorneys representing families in both cases. "There's a failure by administrators to take reports of abuse seriously, not just by parents but by staff, too."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.