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We're supposed to protect our students

By: Carol Feineman, News Messenger Editor
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I spent the weekend reading six depositions. Never before have I wanted to dive into legal documents on my days off from work. But the depositions, ordered via the civil lawsuit filed in May 2009 by Rigo Avelar and his family against the Western Placer Unified School District, were compelling. As a parent, I couldn’t stop thinking how helpless I would feel if I was in Avelar’s position. Avelar is the stepfather of the Lincoln High School junior in 2008 who was sexually assaulted by former Marine recruiter Victor Sanchez-Millan. The recruiter was sentenced in 2008 to one year in jail for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and unlawful sex with a minor. He now must register as a sex offender. The junior was never issued a student ID nor an off-campus lunch pass letting her leave during the school day, according to the stepfather. And, Avelar said, the only ones who could sign her out of class were he or his wife. They were the only ones on her emergency card, he added. Lawsuit depositions were taken of Lincoln High School assistant-principal secretary Charlene Emerson, former high school assistant-principal Janice Elizabeth Smith, high school Principal David Butler, the school district’s assistant superintendent of educational services Mary Boyle and Sanchez-Millan. (Boyle was promoted Aug. 3 as deputy superintendent of educational services.) What struck me after reading the school representatives’ documents were they did not refute that a Lincoln High junior in April 2008 entered into a sexual relationship with a Marine recruiter she met at a school job fair. And the secretary and administrators never denied that the junior was taken off campus by the recruiter several days during class and lunchtime. What’s at the heart of the lawsuit is whether the junior had permission to leave school during a class or lunch. Avelar is adamant that his daughter was never given a student ID or a pass giving her permission to leave for lunch. He said only he or his wife could sign her out of school. The school representatives’ depositions did not show that the junior could go off campus during the day. This week, school district Superintendent Scott Leaman said that Avelar’s allegations relating to if the girl had permission to leave is a matter to be decided in court. I told Leaman that the stepfather says that security is lax at school. Leaman responded that Lincoln High is safer since last year with the addition of a full-time school resource officer. Plus, Leaman said, security guards check students in cars as they leave the parking lot during lunch. Depositions of the school representatives, however, said that those guards are in the lot for only the first 15 minutes of the lunch period. The depositions, taken in May and June of this year, were disconcerting. So I reread them to find some emotions or sympathy elicited by the school representatives for what one of their students went through. I found not one such response although I found scores of “I don’t remember” responses. I have a paralegal degree and I was married to a lawyer; I know that lawyers coach their clients on keeping deposition answers to a yes-or-no mentality and not giving away information to the other side. But we’re talking about a 17-year-old who was sexually-abused through a school-sanctioned contact. School is supposed to be a safe place. The depositions were eye-openers. For example, how could the principal “not remember,” according to his deposition, what school district officials said when he told them about the recruiter’s relationship with the junior? And why didn’t he know if there was any effort on the part of the district at a district level to review the high school’s policies and procedures to the best of his knowledge? The assistant superintendent’s answers were also alarming. When asked at her deposition, Boyle said it wasn’t Lincoln High staff who alerted her to “a problem with an incident involving a military recruiter” but it was the press. Or, for example, Boyle responding, “I don’t think so,” when asked if there was “ever an effort by the district to extend an offer of counseling” to the junior. Avelar was dismissed from his lawsuit last month because, Avelar said, his attorney didn’t show up to the final court meeting. But Avelar will appeal because his family “needs closure.” I also looked this weekend at three online comments (lincolnnewsmessenger.com) for the first “School district sued” story that we posted on Oct. 14, 2009. The mean-spirited comments ridiculed the parents and daughter. Why wouldn’t those anonymous bloggers instead show compassion for what the Lincoln family has gone through? The family is still working through the ordeal. Whether Avelar is successful or not when he appeals the lawsuit, I admire him. He is trying to protect his daughter, as well as all other students, and show his daughter that he cares very much about her. I wish the depositions had shown the same caring. Carol Feineman can be reached at Carolf@goldcountrymedia.com