Overview:

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) recently announced its intention to seek a new trial in the case of two special needs students whose family recently won a lawsuit against the district alleging abuse by a behavioral aid.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) recently announced its intention to seek a new trial in the case of two special needs students whose family recently won a lawsuit against the district alleging abuse by a behavioral aid.

In the meantime, the School Board voted last week to pass a resolution to disburse the payment of the $45 million awarded to the family in damages over a ten year period, claiming that a one time payment would cause “undue financial hardship” and negatively impact the District’s ability to meet student needs.

“The District does not have sufficient funds available to pay the amounts rendered in the Verdicts by lump sum,” the resolution stated. “A lump-sum payment of the Verdicts would serve as a severe undue financial hardship on the District and its ability to provide services now and in the future.”

The resolution was brought forward in compliance with Government Code Section 970.6 which “provides that a judgment that imposes an undue hardship on a public agency may be paid over a period of ten (10) years in equal yearly installment payments.”

A Los Angeles jury found in favor of the plaintiffs on Oct. 20 after a long trial. Since the announcement of the verdict, District officials have maintained that they do not believe it was justified, a sentiment echoed by Superintendent Ben Drati at the Dec. 15 Board meeting, during which the new trial and resolution were discussed.

“The district’s first step is to seek a new trial because we believe that the evidence simply doesn’t support the verdict or the damages that were awarded,” he said. “It is incredibly important that we simultaneously take steps to protect the students and ensure that whatever happens we can always provide all the services they need in the future.”

The lawsuit, which was filed back in 2019, alleged that Galit Gottlieb, a school district employee at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School in Malibu at the time, used corporal punishment including physical restraint, physical abuse and intentional battery against the two special needs second graders. The lawsuit also names multiple other SMMUSD staff members who it said knew about the abuse but failed to act on or report it.

The incidents described in the case occurred during the 2017-18 school year and were initially reported to the parents by a bus driver with the District, who said she witnessed Gottlieb physically restrain the students and punish them by putting hand sanitizer on their dry, chapped hands with the intent of causing pain. The twins were seven years old at the time.

Board President Maria Leon-Vasquez said that seeking further legal action in the case does not mean the district is not supportive of the students involved in the incident.

“These are procedural motions that are being made simultaneously with our motion for a new trial and in no way does it negate what transpired with our two students in Malibu,” she said. “I’m just totally not satisfied with whatever role our staff might have taken place in that.”

She added that she views distributing the payments to be in the best interest of all students in the district.

“We truly are supportive of all our kids in this situation and what happened in that we hope that we can resolve this, and, again we have to take also precautions in that we have to make sure that we can move forward so that we’re not causing other damage to the rest of the other students,” she said.

Leon-Vasquez said further updates on the state of the case can be expected in January.

grace@smdp.com

Grace Adams

Grace Adams is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University where she studied Spanish and journalism. She holds a Master’s degree in investigative journalism from City, University of London. She has experience...