Cooper & Elliott Blog

One School’s Negligence Perpetuates Teacher Misconduct

Posted on Thu, Jun 14, 2018 @ 3:27 PM

As Ohio civil litigation attorneys representing injured children, we have learned that “injury” has many different forms. Sometimes wounds are obvious—in other cases, the pain is emotional and less obvious, but no less damaging to young victims.

This is especially true where parental or teacher misconduct is involved. Sometimes, the mental and emotional damage caused by the wrongdoing can be further exacerbated by shame or perceived reputational damage when the identities of victims are made public.

In the case described below, it was our responsibility to bring teacher misconduct and its harm to light—and do so without causing further harm to the victims.

A well-loved teacher crosses the line

Our firm represented the families of several young girls who had been victimized to varying degrees by their elementary school teacher, Matt Dixon*. Mr. Dixon was beloved by his students and well-respected by the school system and fellow faculty members. Fortunately (in this case), the abuse did not extend to direct sexual relations with the students. Suffice it to say that Mr. Dixon’s relationship with the girls still fell dangerously outside the realm of normal classroom interaction and his actions exceeded what would be considered acceptable behavior between a teacher and school-aged girls.

What’s more disturbing, is that these were not the first incidents of teacher misconduct Mr. Dixon had been involved in.

Avoiding the warning signs of teacher misconduct

Even in his previous position at a different school, there were accusations made against Mr. Dixon of engaging in inappropriate behavior with female students. Like many predators, he identified particularly vulnerable girls and groomed them to become increasingly receptive to his “special” attention: holding them, flattering them, bringing them to his home, and engaging in after school activities with them without parental knowledge. Once groomed, he continued personal, out-of-school relationships with the girls throughout grade school, though they were no longer his students.

For nearly a decade, Mr. Dixon thrived in the classroom despite parents’ reports of misconduct. He had an outstanding record in the classroom and was very popular among his peers and students. Because of his reputation, the school system failed to recognize the signs of his inappropriate behavior. The school’s attitude was that such an accomplished teacher would never do anything to jeopardize the well-being of his students.

Though the school was aware of these reports, it continually dismissed them and no official documentation was ever added to Mr. Dixon’s file.

A civil litigation resolution without further child injury

When we were approached by the families, we set to work immediately to resolve the issue in a way that best suited their needs, including protecting, as much as possible, the anonymity of the girls involved.

That meant first taking steps that would avoid a lengthy—and very public—lawsuit.

Once we gathered the facts of the case (including recovering video tapes of some of Mr. Dixon’s activities with the girls), we determined that the best way to protect the confidentiality of the students and their families was to negotiate directly with the school system. Instead of a day in court, the parents desired confidentially. They wanted to challenge any claims of ignorance on the part of the school system and compel it to accept responsibility for its inaction and failure to protect the children entrusted to its teachers.

We met multiple times with the superintendent, presented a list of demands, and talked through the issues of the case.

Ultimately, we were able to avoid filing a public lawsuit by negotiating a pre-suit resolution that brought about settlements between the school board and the families, and dismissal of the teacher. (He was subsequently convicted of criminal charges and is serving time in prison.) The negotiations also resulted in policy changes to the school system’s guidelines in order to more efficiently identify teacher predators and protect vulnerable students.

Protecting children’s futures

Civil litigation cases involving children require great sensitivity in terms of the long-term impact on the families and victims involved. Cases such as this one need additional care to preserve, as much as possible, the privacy of the victims.

The daughters of the families we represented were able to maintain their anonymity, remain in the same school, and resume their normal lives as children and students without being labeled as victims of sexual abuse.

The parents, meanwhile, were able to express their justifiable outrage with the school authorities, effecting changes in school policy that were necessary and reasonable.

In the end, justice was served in multiple ways. First, by protecting our clients’ children and halting their teacher’s behavior. Also, by helping to make schools safer for future students (this latter point is also therapeutic for the families whose lives had been upended by such a significant breach of trust). This multi-faceted result is the kind we strive to achieve for all our clients and their families.

If you require assistance with an injury or wrongful death case involving a child, don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re here to help.

*For the protection of the children involved, names of any participants in this case have been omitted and certain details have been withheld.

The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.

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