BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – A young girl is forced to perform oral sex on an older boy while he films her with his cell phone camera and students at their school look on; another young girl becomes pregnant after she is raped by a male student at her school; a young boy is sodomized in the bathroom by an older student, but school administrators don’t penalize the perpetrator; another child is sexually assaulted by five boys on campus, and nothing is done to stop them or punish them after the fact.
These are not scenarios from an NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode – they are actual events that parents say took place at the Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind, the state’s only public school for children with these disabilities.
For more than a decade, some of the school’s administrators and students covered up a terrible secret – young children between 12 and 16 years old were being terrorized – robbed, raped, sodomized and even gang raped on campus and on the school buses – not by employees, but by other children. There are just 80 children enrolled in the school, which is located on the edge of Waikiki, Hawaii’s main tourism hub, and just across the street from the Honolulu Zoo.
One student heading a gang calling themselves the “Ringleaders” orchestrated the attacks, and students were ordered to participate as attackers or be retaliated against.
Michael Green is one of five attorneys who successfully secured a $5,750,000 settlement last week from the state and a school counselor.
“We’re talking about instances where boys are sodomized, girls are raped. We’re talking about digital penetration, we’re talking about oral sex, and it’s all over the place, whether it’s in school buses, it’s in dorms. Some people who can’t see so they can’t be witnesses, we have people who can’t hear so they can’t hear outcries. There’s no question that people in the highest places of D.O.E. knew about this. They knew about it at the very latest in 2009 and probably before,” Green said in August 2011 when he announced the class action lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Kevin Chang will finalize the settlement on April 22, which will be distributed to students who were victims or witnessed the sexual attacks in amounts of $20,000, $75,000 or $200,000, depending on the severity of their injuries.
Children Attacked on Campus, on School Buses
The lead plaintiff is a mother known only as “Jane Doe” whose deaf son “John Doe” was robbed, forced to perform oral sex, and repeatedly sexually assaulted on campus by older students. Her claims detailed in the lawsuit allege the state DOE and school administrators failed to supervise the students, and school staff and then tried to cover up the alleged sexual assaults after becoming aware of the allegations.
The mother claimed: “For many years, the school has had a problem with certain students, some of whom called themselves the ‘Ringleaders,’ who on an ongoing basis bullied, terrorized, assaulted, robbed, sodomized, raped, anally raped, gang raped, and/or sexually attacked students who were younger and smaller, including plaintiff John Doe.”
“Students, including plaintiff John Doe, were coerced into submitting to anal sex with multiple members of the Ringleaders. … A young girl at the school became pregnant, which was known to school officials. … The Ringleaders coerced students into doing what the Ringleaders wanted by threats of violence and sexual attack, including sodomy and rape.”
“Under coercion by the Ringleaders, John Doe was forced to surrender to them various items of property, including clothing and video games. … The Ringleaders threatened that if John Doe did not provide them with what they wanted, he would be harmed and sexually assaulted.”
“At times when John Doe had nothing to provide the Ringleaders, they proceeded to fulfill their threats and engaged in sexual acts with John Doe, including on school property. Students, including plaintiff John Does, were coerced into submitting to anal sex with multiple members of the Ringleaders.”
“At one point, a young girl in the presence of other students was coerced into giving oral sex to a member of the Ringleaders who filmed the act on his cell phone.”
School administrators “negligently, recklessly, and intentionally failed to take effective action to stop the wrongful activities” even though they were informed of the assaults in April, May and June 2009, the mother said.
Since Green’s stunning announcement, and details released by the plaintiffs, the school principal, Sydney Dickerson, was replaced, and Scott O’Neal, a counselor on contract, was fired over allegations of inappropriate behavior with students. Both were included in the lawsuit. The state attorney general, the agency that represented the Department of Education in the lawsuit, also represented Dickerson, while O’Neal hired a private attorney.
Taxpayers Will Pay for Decade of Abuse
The decade of abuse isn’t just impacting the 35 students and their families. Assuming a federal judge gives the final approval at an April 22 hearing, and the legislature approves the settlement, Hawaii taxpayers will cover the $5 million settlement, and another $1 million in legal fees to plaintiffs’ attorneys Michael Green, Glenn Uesugi, John Rapp, Eric Seitz and Christopher Bouslog, while O’Neal, who has not admitted any wrongdoing, will independently contribute $750,000.
Anne E. Lopez, the Special Assistant to the Attorney General, would only say: “Attorney General, David Louie, is very pleased that the Court has given its preliminary approval to the settlement in Jane Doe, et al v. State of Hawaii, Civ. No 11-000550 HG KSC. The attorneys for the Plaintiffs and the State worked cooperatively to avoid protracted litigation and should be commended for crafting a responsible resolution to the difficult issues raised in this case.”
Court filings detail more about the class action settlement. Those eligible for a portion of the settlement include those students who were subjected to “A sexual assault on the school grounds or on the school bus or a coerced sexual encounter on the school grounds or on a school bus involving another student or students; a sexual encounter involving a staff member, or witnessing a sexual assault or coerced sexual encounter involving another student on the school grounds or on the school bus or a sexual encounter involving a staff member and a student.”
As a part of the settlement, the state DOE must undertake specific actions related to management of the school, including training bus drivers and bus aides, examining any buses that run late, and looking at placing cameras on the school buses and installing a tracking system.
On campus, the DOE may upgrade videophones and will include numbers to call to report trouble. The DOE will ensure cameras and lighting on campus is well placed and operating. They will also install a master key system and ensure the facilities including windows are secure. The school will hire additional personnel when necessary.
Because there was a question as to whether the interpreters were covering up the crimes, the school will look for a principal, counselors and therapists who are fluent in American Sign Language.
The school administrators will continue to work with the Sex Abuse Treatment Center and create a system for anonymous reporting.
Settlement ‘Good Recovery’ for Child Victims
The plaintiffs’ attorneys did not comment on the $5,750,000 settlement but said in a letter to their clients they believe the proposed settlement is a “good recovery” and “is in the best interest of the class” because there are “inherent risks associated with continuing to litigate and proceeding to trial,” including the danger that the plaintiffs would not prevail on any of their claims and receive no compensation.
The attorneys believe that after trial they would only be able to recover $3 million and plaintiffs would have been subject to “rigorous attacks” by defendants.
While the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits like this are 2 years, this settlement includes people who may have been injured 10 years prior to the filing of the lawsuit.
The Honolulu Police Department confirmed there is an ongoing criminal investigation, which has led to the arrest of several juvenile male students allegedly involved in the ongoing abuse at the school.
Juvenile records are sealed and police have not commented further on the investigation since the announcement of the criminal probe in 2011.
Last week, the state Senate voted down harsher penalties against those who commit sexual crimes against minors, commonly known as Jessica’s Law, by a vote of 23-1, saying the penalties were too harsh.