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School district settles girl's sexual harassment lawsuit

School district settles girl's sexual harassment lawsuit

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BELLEVUE — The school district in this east Seattle suburb has agreed to pay a former elementary school pupil $190,500 to settle a lawsuit her family filed claiming that boys had sexually harassed her starting when she was 7.

It's the state's largest settlement ever for a minor-on-minor sexual harassment case, according to the plaintiff's attorney, Yvonne Kinoshita Ward.

"It actually makes us feel very vindicated," Barbara Crittenden, the girl's mother, told the King County Journal on Thursday, a day after a judge approved the settlement. "Basically, we followed our conscience from the beginning. We just felt, how can we stand by and let this happen?"

Crittenden sued the Bellevue School District and Newport Heights Elementary School Principal Marian Peiffer in December 2001, accusing Peiffer of doing nothing when her daughter complained about boys sexually harassing her.

She alleged that boys at Newport Heights began harassing the girl in 1998, when she was a second-grader, after she had flunked a routine hearing test and had to carry a card that read "failed" because she is hearing-impaired.

One boy drew a nude picture of her with her name written on it and showed it to friends, the plaintiffs said. Soon, a half-dozen other boys started taunting the girl by using sexual language, pinching and grabbing her, pinning her against a wall, and threatening to force another boy to have sex with her at a school-sponsored Valentine's Day dance.

A school counselor told the girl she needed to "handle her own problems." Ward said Peiffer refused to meet with the pupils until Crittenden threatened to call her attorney.

The principal eventually called the boys' parents, but their behavior continued. Peiffer never punished them, and she never reported the incident to school district officials as required by law, Ward said.

Crittenden and school counselors deposed in the case said Peiffer questioned whether children as young as 7 could be guilty of sexual harassment.

In a deposition, Peiffer testified that the lawsuit was an eye-opener, and said she's now aware that sexual harassment may occur among kids in elementary school.

"Well, obviously our awareness has been raised during the last few years by this," Peiffer said in a deposition.

Efforts to reach Peiffer for comment were not successful Friday, when schools were closed for Veterans Day.

Newport Heights Elementary now teaches its pupils about sexual harassment through its Steps to Respect Program, and it is training teachers to recognize peer-on-peer sexual harassment.

Before the lawsuit, the school had no sexual harassment policy or education program, school officials said in depositions taken in May. State law requires that all schools develop sexual harassment policies and post them for all to see.

Crittenden's attorney said it was gratifying that the school enacted a sexual harassment policy. "The whole point of bringing this was to raise awareness," Ward said. "Knowing that at least some steps were taken feels good."

Crittenden pulled her daughter out of Newport Heights and enrolled her at a local private school, where she excelled and encountered no similar problems.

The family later moved to Spokane, where Chrittenden's daughter, now 14, is a freshman in high school. Her mom said she's getting good grades and is on her school's swimming and volleyball teams.

"She's doing fabulous," Crittenden said, "and I think part of that is because we didn't let her just be a victim."

Crittenden said the settlement money will go into a trust fund, which her daughter may use after she turns 25.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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