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Confidential Agreement In Berkeley Sex-Abuse Case Sparks Criticism

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Recent revelations that the Berkeley, Calif., school district is paying more than $1 million to settle a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse of female students by a former 4th grade teacher have spawned criticism of the confidential agreement.

The financial terms of the settlement, reached last summer, came to light only about a month ago. The details quickly raised questions about whether the district had sought to sidestep a state law that bars confidential settlements involving taxpayer funds by persuading a federal judge to require that the terms be kept secret.

The case is the second involving sexual abuse by a teacher that the 8,000-student district has settled in the past two years. In 1994, the district paid $1.8 million to settle allegations that a high school band instructor sexually abused two female students.

The most recent case involves allegations that a popular veteran teacher at the district's Arts Magnet School inappropriately touched girls in his 4th grade class over several years. The 67-year-old former teacher, Richard Baugh, retired after the allegations became public in 1994.

He pleaded guilty last year to five felony counts of child sex abuse in Berkeley and to two felony counts in San Francisco related to his summer teaching jobs. Mr. Baugh served six months in jail and is now serving five years' probation.

The civil lawsuit against the Berkeley district and several administrators was filed by nine female students and five of their mothers. The suit claimed the district failed to investigate complaints against the teacher.

"He had developed a pattern of having girls sit on his lap, and he would rub his genitals against them," Leslie Levy, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said. "Sometimes he would touch their breasts."

Insurer Balks

Ms. Levy said Mr. Baugh's popularity among teachers and community members helped insulate him against suspicion. Even after he was charged, some teachers showed up during preliminary court proceedings to show support while children were testifying against him.

"When a child goes up against a popular teacher with a complaint about sexual abuse, the fact that it is a popular teacher should make [school officials] investigate it even more thoroughly," Ms. Levy said.

The federal lawsuit was filed under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funds. The settlement was reached July 1.

The financial terms did not become public, however, until the school district filed a separate suit against one of its insurance carriers, General Star Indemnity Co., because the company refuses to pay its share of the settlement.

According to the San Francisco Examiner, which broke the story, the company contends in court papers that the district's insurance policy excludes sexual abuse by teachers. Court papers indicate that the district settled the lawsuit for at least $1.15 million.

Ms. Levy, who said she was bound by the confidentiality agreement and could not discuss exact figures, indicated that the total settlement was even more. "This is a portion of the settlement that is [public] now," she said. "It is by no means the total."

Local news accounts and legal experts have criticized the district for keeping the amount confidential. A state law requiring that all government business be done publicly demands that settlements by the state and local governments be made public, said Jim Wheaton, a lawyer with the First Amendment Project in Oakland, a free-press advocacy group.

'No Pattern'

A district official said a mediator who helped settle the lawsuit suggested the confidentiality agreement, which is fairly common in federal civil suits.

"I've been told the mediator is the one who suggested" the confidentiality provision, Karen Sarlo, the school district's public information officer, said. "The mediator suggested it, and both parties agreed to it."

A federal court settlement that includes the confidentiality agreement can supersede state laws, legal experts said.

Ms. Levy said the confidentiality provision was presented to the plaintiffs as part of a package with the proposed settlement.

"I would like to see these things not be confidential," she said. "We would have opted for individual [settlement] amounts to be confidential, but not the total. My understanding is the district is primarily concerned about triggering false claims."

Ms. Sarlo of the district said the agreement also called for the district's staff to receive training in handling sexual-harassment complaints. The two settlements of such cases in two years do not reflect an unusual pattern in the district, she added.

"I don't think Berkeley or any other school district is subject to this more" than other places, she said. "We all are subject to this. People who prey on children are going to go places where there are children."

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