Jury Awards $105 Million In Teacher-Student Abuse Case
A South Carolina jury has found a Charleston private school and two former administrators responsible in a teacher's sexual abuse of male students and awarded a victim's father $105 million in damages.
The award, though unlikely to be collected in full, may be the largest for a single victim of sexual misconduct against students by school employees, legal experts say.
Late last month, the state court jury found that principal James Bishop Alexander and headmaster Berkeley Grimball, both now deceased, were negligent for not stopping the abuse by a teacher at the Porter-Gaud School in the 1970s and early 1980s. In April of last year, a judge sentenced teacher Edward Fischer to 20 years in prison in connection with 13 sexual-abuse charges.
Mr. Fischer later admitted to having victimized at least 39 boys, including more than 20 from Porter-Gaud, during his 40-year teaching career in Charleston-area public and private schools.
The case against the college- preparatory school, as well as the administrators as individuals, was filed in 1998 by Harold Glover, the father of one of those former students. The jury awarded him $90 million in punitive damages, plus $15 million in actual damages.
"The verdict has become a cautionary tale to South Carolina schools about how not to handle sex-abuse complaints," said Mr. Glover's lawyer, Gregg Meyers, who is also a member of the Charleston County board of education. "On the school board, I hear how sensitive school employees have become to preventing incidents. I think we all have Porter-Gaud in the back of our minds."
More than a dozen lawsuits have been filed involving former students of Mr. Fischer's—not all of them at Porter-Gaud—but this was the first to go to trial. Several others have been settled for undisclosed amounts, while nine others are pending.
National education groups say the Porter-Gaud case represents how conscious school administrators must be about their own responsibility in letting sexual abuse of students by employees go unchecked. In communities across the country, districts are increasingly being called to account in court for their handling of incidents of sexual abuse of students by school employees. ("Cost Is High When Schools Ignore Abuse," Dec. 9, 1998.)
"There is a growing body of case law on what school districts are responsible for in preventing abuse," said Judy Seltz, a spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Alexandria, Va. "I think there is a strong sense of that."
Ms. Seltz and other experts said they suspected the size of the jury award in the Glover suit was unprecedented in such a case.
"I have not heard of a verdict that big before," said Edwin Darden, a senior staff lawyer for the National School Boards Association.
Surprised by Amount
Porter-Gaud's current headmaster, Stephen R. Blanchard, said he was surprised by the verdict's magnitude.
On Oct. 26, he sent a letter home to parents saying that school officials had been cautioned by their lawyers against expressing their feelings about the case.
"Like you, we have found the recent lawsuits extraordinarily painful," the letter said. "We remain deeply grieved by the circumstances of these lawsuits. And we profoundly regret them."
Mr. Fischer had worked at Porter- Gaud as a physical science teacher and athletics adviser from 1972 to 1982. After that, he worked for other private schools as well as a public high school in Charleston.
When Mr. Fischer was quietly asked to resign at Porter-Gaud after a sex complaint, Mr. Alexander helped him get another job at a private school. Similarly, Mr. Grimball wrote Mr. Fischer a letter expressing appreciation for his work at Porter-Gaud and offering to help him in the future, according to witness testimony.
"What Porter-Gaud did was worse than Fischer," said Guerry Glover, 35, whose father filed the lawsuit. "He was sick. They knew better."
In an interview, Mr. Blanchard said that for the past year, Porter-Gaud, a coed school serving students in grades 1-12, has fingerprinted all new employees; provided sexual-harassment training for teachers and begun to develop such training for students; and required more thorough teacher reviews, including annual reviews, peer reviews, and student evaluations.
The result, he said, should make Porter-Gaud a leader in efforts to deter sexual abuse.
Mr. Alexander killed himself just days before he was to give a sworn deposition in another lawsuit dealing with similar complaints in 1998. Mr. Grimball died last year after saying in a sworn statement that he had not been obligated to call police after the sex-abuse complaint that resulted in Mr. Fischer's departure from the school.
Guerry Glover said he doesn't expect to get the full amount of money awarded by the jury on Oct. 25 and 26, because of limits on insurance coverage. Because Porter-Gaud is a nonprofit institution, the school's liability is limited to $250,000 under state law—a cap that is similar to the one applying to public schools, according to Mr. Meyers. The school's insurance on the two estates is capped at $2 million.
Vol. 20, Issue 10, Page 5