MALIBU — A tentative settlement has been reached in a case involving a student who accused a Malibu High School teacher of slapping her in front of classmates last year, according to Donald Karpel, an attorney for the student.

The suit, filed last September, did not seek a specific amount for the alleged damages, but the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) rejected a claim for $1 million in damages in June of last year.

Karpel, representing student Dionne Evans, did not disclose how much the settlement was for but described it as “satisfactory to [his] client.”

“We’re very relieved,” Karpel said. “Everybody can move on at this point. My client will deal with whatever residuals she has and move on.”

Evans accused ninth-grade English teacher Jennifer Gonzalez of slapping her in the face multiple times in front of classmates in May 2012, while referencing a scene from the movie “Bridesmaids.” Evans claimed Gonzalez was angry with her for forgetting a binder with her homework in it.

Daniel Kolodziej, an attorney for Gonzalez, said he was not at liberty to discuss the terms of the settlement when reached for comment this week.

District Superintendent Sandra Lyon would not confirm a tentative settlement and did not wish to comment for this article.

The suit, filed Sept. 17, 2012, in Los Angeles Superior Court, listed battery, assault, negligence, violation of civil rights and discrimination among several complaints. Gonzalez, former Malibu High Principal Mark Kelly and Malibu High School were also named as defendants in the case.

Readers at the time spoke out on the issue, many in support of Gonzalez.

On The Malibu Times website, reader Cheynna Bard said Gonzalez was “the most loved teacher in all of Malibu High” and called the slapping accusation “ridiculous.”

“She is one of those (few) amazing teachers who really cares about her students and invests everything in them,” Bard wrote. “Everyone who knows her knows her infectious energy and great sense of humor. Shame on you for threatening to sue a teacher that you know is amazing.”

The lawsuit accused administrators at Malibu High of discriminating against Evans, who is black, by failing to reprimand Gonzalez and depriving Evans of equal treatment because of her race. It alleged that Evans, the only black student in Gonzalez’ English class, suffered “great mental, physical and nervous pain” as a result of the incident. Karpel maintains the alleged altercation caused Evans to transfer to a school outside of Malibu due to distress.

Kolodziej denied the accusations on behalf of Gonzalez last September, saying the teacher never struck Evans.

“In speaking with Ms. Evans, Ms. Gonzalez did not strike or slap Ms. Evans, or cause her any harm,” Kolodziej said in September. “Ms. Gonzalez regrets that Ms. Evans may have felt uncomfortable being addressed directly about not completing her work.”

Gonzalez wrote a letter of apology to Evans the day after the alleged assault, saying that she did not mean to cause the student embarrassment.

“I was trying to reach out to you, and help you focus on your schoolwork and motivate you,” Gonzalez wrote. “Even though my intentions were honorable, they did not come out that way and for that I am very sorry.”

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department conducted an investigation after the incident and decided not to pursue criminal charges.

The lawsuit also accused SMMUSD of creating a risk for students by employing Gonzalez despite an alleged history of physically striking students and an “explosive temper.”

Evans’ lawsuit cited a 1996 incident in which Gonzalez allegedly threw a soda bottle at a 16-year-old male Malibu High student and struck his genitals, according to court documents. The lawsuit says the student, Andre Lewandowski, collapsed onto the floor.

Kolodziej denied his client intentionally threw the soda bottle at Lewandowski. He said the student was taking part in a class talent competition and volunteered to rap in front of the class. Despite a warning that he could not curse, Lewandowski included a curse word in his performance, causing Gonzalez to “drop a bottle of soda in Andre’s lap out of shock,” Kolodziej said.

According to the lawsuit, Lewandowski’s father filed a complaint with SMMUSD over the incident, but the district did not pursue any action against Gonzalez. Lewandowski remained in Gonzalez’ class for the next year and a half before transferring schools, according to Kolodziej.

“This is an effort by Karpel to dig up old and unfounded allegations,” Kolodziej said at the time.

 

editor@smdp.com

 

This story first appeared in The Malibu Times.

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