Local News

School Board lawsuit focuses on victim's credibility

SEBRING - With 90 legal actions thus far on the court docket, the sexual abuse civil lawsuits against the School Board of Highlands County have represented an active legal battle since the cases were filed on May 2, 2012. The five lawsuits claim a "gross failure to act" by School Board of Highlands County employees in connection with the sexual abuse of five female students between the ages of 6 and 11 by a man who was not a school district employee. In the latest point of contention, the School Board of Highlands County's expert witness, neuropsychologist Sue Antell, testified that there is no "credible evidence" that one of the alleged victims was sexually abused. As the civil case proceeds in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, the criminal case has been closed with one conviction.
Orestes Gonzalez was arrested in February 2011 after being accused of molesting three children 7 to 9 years of age at Lake Country Elementary's after-school program. He pleaded guilty to five counts of lewd molestation and lewd conduct on Dec. 12, 2011, and was later sentenced to 13 years in prison. The children, identified as Jane Doe No. 15, 20, 22, 23 and 24, and their parents are being represented by the Miami firm Herman Law, which specializes in representing sexual abuse victims. The School Board of Highlands County is being represented by Carman, Beauchamp & Sang of Orlando, which specializes in the defense of employers in employment-related litigation. Herman Law attorney, Stuart S. Mermelstein, filed a motion on June 28 to exclude Antell's deposition testimony on the credibility of Jane Doe 22. "She [Antell] will opine that Jane Doe No. 22 is not telling the truth about the alleged sexual abuse and that her sexual assault never happened," Mermelstein stated in his motion. "Expert testimony that vouches for or discredits the credibility of another witness ... interferes with the fact finding function of the jury, and is thus, inadmissable." Carman, Beauchamp & Sang attorney, Allen Sang, countered on July 2 that Antell's report gives a detailed explanation to support her conclusions and opinions including a comprehensive history of Jane Doe 22's case. Sang requested that the court deny the plaintiff's motion to exclude Antell's testimony. Mermelstein responded on July 12 that the defendant provides "no argument or authority" supporting the admissibility of Antell's testimony that the sexual abuse alleged by Jane Doe No. 22 "did not occur." A mediator reported to the court on Feb. 4 that the case did not settle. A second mediation session was scheduled for May 10, but the plaintiffs filed an unopposed motion for an extension of time to mediate. The original complaint stated that then Lake Country Elementary Principal Majel Bowerman, the school board and its representatives acted with deliberate indifference in failing to take any action to prohibit daycare manager Maria Gonzalez's husband, Orestes Gonzalez, from having access to the school's after-care program. Five amended complaints, one for each plaintiff in the case, were subsequently filed by Mermelstein. One of those amended complaints, which was filed March 1, states that Orestes Gonzales sat down next to Jane Doe No. 20 in the aftercare program, looked around the room to make sure no one was watching, then scooted his chair closer to Jane Doe and sexually molested her. He did this to her nearly every day in the aftercare program beginning when she was in the first-grade, the amended complaint states. In the amended complaints, then Assistant Principal Steve Beck was named, along with Maria Gonzalez and Bowerman, as school board employees who could have taken corrective measures. Maria Gonzalez was fired from the school district on Jan 13, 2011. During the investigation of the alleged abuse, Maria Gonzalez was charged with harassing a witness, which is a first-degree felony. On June 10 she was adjudicated guilty by Judge Angela Cowden and sentenced to five years of probation, ordered to serve 200 community service hours and ordered to attend a one-day ACF (behavior modification) course. Bowerman retired from the school district after the 2010-11 school year and Beck resigned from the school district in 2009. mvalero@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5826