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When a substitute teacher raped a 12-year-old schoolgirl, the Savannah-Chatham County, Ga., public schools decided to cover up rather than investigate, a federal judge has determined. In a court order, U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. of Georgia’s Southern District in Savannah said it was “readily apparent” that school system personnel had altered substitute teacher Darnique L. Jefferson’s job application to hide his 1995 arrest for sexual battery. School personnel and the school board last month settled the girl’s suit for $500,000. Cooper v. Savannah-Chatham County School District, No. 4:01-CV-174 (S.D. Ga. July 25, 2001). Jefferson, 27, was convicted of statutory rape, enticing a minor for an indecent purpose and child molestation in his 1999 attack on the 12-year-old, according to court filings. He was sentenced to three years and was to have been released Aug. 4. The case raises questions about school officials’ duty to vet employees and the limits of qualified immunity. William T. Mitchell, co-counsel with Audrey T. Biloon for the girl and her family, said cases such as this one are “virtually impossible” to win because it is extremely difficult to pierce the immunity shield afforded government employees. Allegations that school policy makers violated their administrative duties don’t always rise to the level of a constitutional violation, said Mitchell, who has defended DeKalb County, Ga.’s school system against similar allegations. Knowledge that an action is a constitutional violation must be proven before a government employee can be stripped of immunity. The alteration and the loss of Jefferson’s original security check authorization form “made this case viable,” said Mitchell, of Atlanta’s Cruser & Mitchell. Biloon is with Savannah’s Biloon & Associates. School board attorney Leamon R. Holliday III of Savannah’s Bouhan, Williams & Levy, said, “It was in the best interest of the school district” to settle the case. Holliday said school board members and the superintendent “were unaware until the litigation began that the record had been changed.” “We did a thorough investigation,” Holliday said. “We were unable to determine who had changed it. We referred it to the district attorney for prosecution. The school board’s position was that anyone who changed or altered a record should be prosecuted.” A frivolous suit? Mitchell said that at one point school board attorneys suggested not only that the child’s suit was groundless but also that once it was dismissed the board intended to sue her and her family for filing a frivolous complaint. “I think, under the law, it was a frivolous complaint because the school district cannot be liable,” Holliday said. “A number of claims were asserted that were patently not supported.” What persuaded the school board to settle, he said, was the existence of the altered security-check authorization form. In court pleadings filed on behalf of the school system, the board of education and employees, defense attorneys did not argue the facts in the case. They argued that the decision to hire Jefferson as a substitute teacher despite an earlier arrest did not violate the constitutional rights of the student he attacked. One defense attorney, R. Clay Ratterree of Ellis, Painter, Ratterree & Bart in Savannah, claimed that no binding legal precedent exists that guarantees a schoolchild “a right to be free from sexual abuse by a teacher.” Ratterree defended Gerald Jacobs, the school system’s acting director of human resources at the time Jacobs was hired. Even assuming the student did have such a right, Ratterree argued, her attorneys “fail to offer any evidence that Gerald Jacobs’ conduct, in hiring Jefferson, violated her right to be free from sexual abuse.” Ratterree also argued that negligence alone is not enough to impose a constitutional liability on a government-employed supervisor.

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