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U.S. Agrees To Pay $13 Million To Settle 8 Abuse Suits Brought by Hopi Indians

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By Peter West

The U.S. Justice Department has agreed to pay $13 million to settle lawsuits brought by 58 Hopi Indians who claim to have been sexually molested over an eight-year period by a teacher employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The settlement, thought to be one of the largest ever in a child-abuse case, was approved last month in Phoenix by U.S. District Judge Earl Carroll.

The 58 separate lawsuits against the bia were filed in December 1987; the first cases were scheduled to come to trial next September.

The settlement will be used to directly compensate children who said they were molested by John Boone, a former teacher at the Polacca Day School on the Hopi reservation in Arizona, said James P. Cunningham, one of two lawyers representing the plaintiffs. Mr. Boone is now serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to two counts of child molestation in June 1987.

The settlement will also be used to establish funds to assist victims and help the Hopi community heal the damage caused by the highly publicized case, Mr. Cunningham said.

An example of such damage was the suicide last October of one of the teenagers represented by Mr. Cunningham. At the time, the boy's mother told the press that her son, who shot himself in front of his family, said that he could no longer live with the shame of his molestation.

Under the settlement, the 58 plaintiffs will receive a total of $4.5 million in annuities that, over the course of their lifetimes, could grow in value to as much as $46.7 million, Mr. Cunningham said.

In addition, the individual plain4tiffs will receive between $400,000 and $2 million over their lifetimes, depending on their age and the injuries they allegedly suffered.

The children become eligible for the awards at age 18; about one-third of them will begin receiving payments this month.

The settlement also establishes a $5-million "therapeutic" trust fund, which will allow each plaintiff to receive psychotherapy, up to a maximum cost of $150,000, until age 50.

It also includes an $850,000 educational trust that will allow victims who are ineligible for tribal or federal student aid to apply for money to attend college or obtain postsecondary vocational training.

In addition, $250,000 is set aside to establish a therapy program "to effect somewhat of a community healing," Mr. Cunningham said.

Such services are important, he added, because, for many Hopis, who live in a remote northeastern region of Arizona, "their village and their environment is their extended family."

In addition, each plaintiff's family will each receive a share of a $250,000 portion of the settlement.

Finally, the lawyers will share $2.2 million in the settlement.

Mr. Cunningham called the structure of the settlement "a model" be8cause, unlike most such awards, it calls for unused money to revert to the government.

The Boone case, one of several cases of alleged pedophilia involving teachers in the b.i.a. system, received national attention and was cited in a report by the Special Committee on Investigations of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs as epitomizing the serious flaws in the b.i.a.'s hiring practices. (See Education Week, Nov. 27, 1989.)

According to the committee's report, Mr. Boone repeatedly molested children on the Hopi reservation from 1979 to 1987, enticing them to his home and to nearby motels.

The report also states that a chart found in Mr. Boone's home at the time of his arrest described sexual activities he had engaged in with 142 boys. Subsequent testimony at his trial indicated that he had actually molested 94 boys, or almost 1 of every 20 school-age Hopi boys.

The committee charged that b.i.a. employees either ignored or failed to act on reports of Mr. Boone's actions.

As a result of the publicity surrounding the Boone case and other such incidents, the b.i.a. has tightened its hiring policies and begun conducting more rigorous background checks on applicants for employment. Legislation also is pending to establish a national registry of child-abuse cases on Indian reservations and to require mandatory reporting of such cases. (See Education Week, April 11, 1990.)

The House Interior Committee is also planning field hearings on child abuse in bia schools.

A b.i.a. spokesman last week declined comment on the settlement.

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