Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District to pay family $45 million

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District administration office in Santa Monica, California. Photo by Samantha Bravo.

A Los Angeles Superior Court has awarded $45 million to two special needs twins who went to Juan Cabrillo Elementary School. A jury this week unanimously found that the students were abused with corporal punishment, physical restraint, and intentional battery by a behavioral aide at the primary school that closed in 2019.

The alleged abuse happened in 2017 when the twins were just 7 years old. It was first reported to SMMUSD administrators by a bus driver who claimed the boys were physically hurt when escorted off the bus. An employee at Juan Cabrillo also reported the boys were being hurt. Apparently, a teacher at the school finally made a formal report of child abuse that got the attention of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which began an investigation. The twins were found to have been abused in the classroom as well. The boys, however, never told their parents of the abuse because they are non-verbal, but their mother Nadine Wong said she knew something was wrong because her sons were acting out very aggressively to their parents. The Wongs said this behavior towards them had never been displayed before. 

“As a parent you know something’s wrong when your child is treating everyone different and when you know yourself, that you look at your child and you say, ‘What has happened to you?’, but they can’t tell us,” Wong said.

The lawsuit claimed the district did not take actions when physical abuse to their boys was reported. The parents said the district should have reported the employees’ actions to law enforcement.

According to the lawsuit, filed in 2019, a behavioral support person employed by the district for the twin brothers “repeatedly applied chemicals to the dried, chapped, hands” of the twins and “repeatedly grabbed and touched” them “in a manner intended to inflict pain.” The lawsuit maintained both of these acts “were harmful and offensive forms of contact” and “were in fact harmful and did in fact cause pain. As a proximate result of the above-mentioned conduct, (the plaintiffs) suffered general damages, including, but not limited to bruising, emotional distress and pain, suffering and inconvenience.” 

The two children also suffered special damages that included “counseling expenses, behavioral interventions, and increased living expenses and costs for additional individual support throughout their lives.” One of the plaintiff’s lawyers, David German, said, “District administrators failed the twins by allowing them to be abused for months despite clear warnings they were being harmed.”

Named in the lawsuit were the aide, Galit Gottlieb, then-Principal Pamela Herkner, district administrator Elizabeth Sciutto, classroom teacher William Brown, Special Education Coordinator Kristopher Vegas, Special Education Director Pamela Kazee, and Assistant Superintendent Mark Kelly.

Late last week, SMMUSD officials said they were exploring “options to respond to what we believe to be a verdict that was not justified by the evidence presented.”

Then on Monday, Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati issued a statement that read: “Nothing is — or ever could be — more important to us than the safety and security of all students. Our ongoing dedication to our special needs students is paramount to the success of our district as a whole, and we are committed to making sure that nothing like what has been claimed here could ever happen in the future. We must always examine our shortcomings, but we are also determined to protect the well-being of thousands of our future students and ensure that an unduly punitive award cannot impact the quality of education for an entire generation.”

Charles and Nadine Wong say they don’t want this behavior to be repeated and hope what happened to their family will lead to change for other families.

“I feel vindicated,” said Charles Wong. “It’s out in the open now. The jury saw it.”

The children are now 12 years old and attending a private school with a special program for children with autism.

A SMMUSD spokesperson said any settlement in the case would be covered by insurance and not from the district’s general fund.