Former student, Somerset school district settle lawsuit in sexual assault case
A former student and the Somerset Area School District have settled a 2016 federal lawsuit for $5 million, which will be paid by the school’s insurance carrier and have no monetary impact on taxpayers.
The student claimed former school administrators did nothing 17 years ago to prevent her from being “sexually assaulted, tormented and stalked” by the school’s then-science teacher, Stephen Shaffer.
“The plaintiff and the school district reached a settlement after more than a dozen depositions consisting of thousands of pages of testimony under oath,” said Joel Feller of Ross Feller Casey LLP of Philadelphia, the attorney for the plaintiff. “Discovery was completed and we were fully prepared and willing to proceed to trial; however, the parties were able to reach a settlement.” The school’s insurer carrier, CM Regent Insurance Co. of Mechanicsburg, provided an attorney for the process. The case was monitored by the district’s solicitor, whose expenses did not exceed what was already budgeted by the school board. The insurer proposed the amount, and the school board signed off on the agreement at its June meeting.
The settlement will not raise the district’s insurance premiums, which were already set to rise slightly, according to Superintendent Krista Mathias.
“The district and the plaintiff were able to come to terms on a settlement without the admission of any liability on the part of the district,” Mathias said in an interview Monday at the Daily American.
School district officials said the agreement should not be seen as an admission of liability on the school district’s part.
“It is expressly understood and agreed that this is a compromise settlement of disputed claims, the liability for which is expressly denied by the school district,” the agreement reads.
The settlement includes a standard clause where neither side can represent itself as the prevailing party.
“The school district is in no way admitting that they or any of their employees, agents or representatives have treated (the plaintiff) unlawfully or wrongfully in anyway. The school district expressly asserts that no unlawful or wrongful conduct of any kind has occurred,” the agreement reads.
The document was obtained by the Daily American through a Right-to-Know request of the school district.
The conduct was alleged to have occurred nearly two decades ago, Mathias said.
“It goes without saying that the passage of time made the defense of this suit difficult,” she said.
The student, now 31, claimed she suffered from physical and mental abuse from the teacher, who began sexually abusing her when she was 14 and in the eighth grade. The abuse continued for years, according to the lawsuit.
Shaffer taught in the school district from 1988 until his retirement in 2005. In 2008 he was charged with rape, statutory sexual assault, sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault, endangering the welfare of children, indecent exposure and corruption of minors. After a jury trial in 2009, the same year Mathias became superintendent, Shaffer was convicted of indecent assault, endangering the welfare of a child and corruption of minors. He was found not guilty of rape, statutory sexual assault and sexual assault. He was sentenced in 2010 to 18 months to seven years in state prison followed by three years of supervised probation.
“Mr. Shaffer was criminally prosecuted and convicted (by a jury) for his unspeakable actions toward my client that began when she was in eighth grade,” Feller said.
Attorney Michael Barbera, of Barbera, Melvin, Svonavec & Sperlazza LLP in Somerset, the school district’s solicitor, said the criminal and civil cases had different elements.
“The focus (in the civil case) is on what did the district do or (not) do,” he said.
The lawsuit alleged that school administrators were aware of allegations of inappropriate conduct involving Shaffer and female students since 1991, but allowed him to continue to teach at the school.
Mathias said the administrators responsible for supervising Shaffer at the time have either died, retired or found other employment. John Baraniak, who was superintendent at the time, died in September following a battle with brain cancer.
She said that rules and procedures on how to report and deal with alleged abuse are much different now than at the time Shaffer was employed by the school district. She cited changes in the law brought about by the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State and steps the school district has taken to better screen applicants, including “copious reference checks” and social media reviews.
Everyone in the system, including volunteers, is trained in policies that include immediate reporting of anything that approaches inappropriate behavior with any student, she said.
“It is my first priority to keep students safe and to have appropriate relationships with the children,” Mathias said.
Feller said there were two purposes and goals behind filing the lawsuit.
One goal “was to shed light on the responsibilities of school district officials to put safety and the well-being of students ahead of the reputation of the school district or school teachers,” Feller said.
Another goal was “to demonstrate that a school district cannot create a hostile educational environment and violate a student’s right to an education free from sexual harassment and abuse,” he said.
“My client was extremely courageous throughout this entire process,” Feller said. “She is pleased with the settlement and is hopeful that her case achieves her goal of bringing attention to this issue of protecting innocent children and making sure that this never happens again to another child.”
Mathias said the administration has ensured that every current school district employee has completed training to “identify and report any suspected child abuse.” She said she does not want this specific matter to influence people’s perspectives of the district, its employees or its students.
“Students are flourishing in our District,” she said in a prepared statement. “We are proud of them and of our teachers, administrators, and support staff who work hard to keep them safe and help them succeed.”