There are few things as disturbing as the abuse of a child. Our Oakland sexual abuse lawyer understands that when sexual abuse occurs in a school setting, it is also a violation of our community’s trust. Early this year, we shared the story of Michael Merrick, a middle school teacher charged with the abuse of a teenage girl. Our comments also mentioned the potential that civil liability for sexual abuse by a teacher may go beyond the perpetrator himself (or, it is important to remember, herself) to include a school or district that turned a blind eye to the abuse. A recent update in The Oakland Tribune shows that such a case is now pending before the courts.
Civil Suit Expands to Include California School District
In January, Michael Merrick pleaded guilty to six felonies related to charges he abused a fourteen year old girl while serving as a teacher at Stanley Middle School. Charges against Merrick stemmed from private math tutoring sessions held in the school’s wood shop (Merrick previously worked in the math department but had moved to a role as shop teacher) and the evidence included hundreds of text messages with sexual theme. Per the criminal case, Merrick also coerced the young victim not to report the abuse. The criminal court sentenced him to five years and eight months in state prison and he is currently serving the term at North Kern State Prison in Delano. Since the resolution of criminal case, the girl’s family filed a civil suit against Merrick himself as well as the school district, Principal David Schrag, and District Superintendent Fred Brill. The suit seeks compensation for past and future medical costs, general damages, and a punitive award.
The civil case is based on charges that Lafayette School District representatives received complaints about Merrick prior to his 2010 arrest. The complaint alleges that the defendants and others in the district knew of prior complaints that the teacher had previously and repeatedly touched other female students in an inappropriate manner. Additionally, the allegations say that the district violated its own rules and the duties imposed on the school system by mandatory reporting laws. The complaint also says that the administration permitted and even endorsed the practice of teachers tutoring students for pay, without monitoring and despite policies specifically forbidding the practice. District representatives deny that they knew of prior events involving Merrick and say that they do not know of complaints raised by any other students. They also assert that disclosing certain documents to the press would violate the privacy of the victim and others, resulting in greater harm.
California Law Holds Schools Liable for Sexual Abuse by a Teacher
California law allows victims of child sexual abuse to bring civil claims against their abuser. Where the abuse occurs at school, the school, the district, and other individuals may also be liable. California statutes and case law imposes a duty on school districts to take any and all reasonable steps to protect their students. Duties are enhanced when the school has prior notice of similar events. School employees are also among those required by law to report suspected cases of child abuse, giving added support to claims where the school knew of prior complaints against a teacher. Beyond the specific mandates relating to schools, general employment law principles can also apply to hold a school liable for an employee’s acts.
Our team is dedicated to protecting the rights of children. Please call our Oakland child sexual abuse law firm for help if your child has been the victim of abuse in a Northern California school.
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