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Berkeley District To Pay $800,000 To Settle Sexual-Abuse Suit

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The Berkeley, Calif., school district has agreed to pay $800,000 to settle an unusual lawsuit involving the alleged sexual abuse of two young girls in the 1980's by a music teacher from the district's only high school. As the sisters grew old enough to enroll in the high school, the teacher's presence there frightened them, the lawsuit claimed.

The district refused to dismiss the teacher, Charles Hamilton, because he was never convicted of sexual-abuse charges.

The suit alleged that Mr. Hamilton on several occasions fondled and improperly touched two daughters of a woman he dated in 1987 and 1988. The girls were in elementary school and middle school at the time, and the alleged abuse did not occur at school.

According to court documents, Mr. Hamilton admitted to police that he had a drinking and drug problem, but he denied abusing the girls. He was charged by the Berkeley Police Department with misdemeanor sexual molestation, but the charges were dismissed when he agreed to substance-abuse counseling.

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing found probable cause that the abuse allegations were true, and suspended Mr. Hamilton's credential for three months in 1990.

The school district, which suspended Mr. Hamilton when the allegations first surfaced, reinstated him when the charges were dropped, officials said.

"He's never been convicted of anything," said Robert Lyman, the lawyer for the district. "He has a 23-year spotless record. He can't be terminated based on these allegations."

Mr. Lyman said the district's insurance company opted for the settlement, which involves no admission of wrongdoing by the district or Mr. Hamilton.

The girls' mother, identified in court papers as Patricia H., brought the lawsuit. It sought damages and Mr. Hamilton's removal from Berkeley High, claiming his presence created a "hostile sexual environment" for the girls.

Title IX Ruling

The older daughter avoided the teacher while she attended the high school, where she graduated in 1993. The younger daughter was too traumatized to enroll at Berkeley High and her education has been disrupted by frequent transfers in and out of private schools and special-education programs, court documents state.

"They are both afraid of him," said Pamela Y. Price, the family's lawyer. "The district's response was, 'Move out of the school."'

In a preliminary ruling in the case of Patricia H. v. Berkeley Unified School District, U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick held that lawsuits alleging sexual harassment based on a "hostile environment" in a public school could be brought under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law that bars sexual discrimination in public education.

Based on the allegations in the suit, Judge Orrick said, "a reasonable student, having experienced such an assault, would be intimidated and fearful of Hamilton's presence at her school, so much so that her fear would interfere with her ability to learn."

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