NMSVH Settlement Announced
From the Editor: Beginning with the October, 1996, issue of the Braille Monitor, we have periodically reported on the unfolding problems at the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped (NMSVH). A settlement in the civil suit brought by a number of current and former NMSVH students was worked out last January shortly before the case was due to go to court. The terms of the settlement were kept secret for six months, but in August they were made public. Here is the text of the Albuquerque Journal article reporting the details that appeared on August 4, 1998:
Blind Suit Cost Released
$1.2 Million Settled Student Abuse Claims
by Rene Romo
Las CrucesThe state and an Alamogordo-based school for the blind paid $1.2 million to settle a civil suit involving the alleged physical and sexual abuse of fifteen former students.
The state Risk Management Division, which insured the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped, on Monday released the figure corresponding to its share of the settlement
The fifteen former students alleged they suffered physical and sexual abuse at the school while administrators failed to protect them.
The Risk Management Division released the amount six months after the settlement was reached, in compliance with state law.
The school's Board of Regents agreed to pay an additional $400,000 to reach the settlement. Payment of that amount came at the suggestion of former superintendent J. Kirk Walter when the plaintiffs' representatives balked at Risk Management's $800,000 proposal, said board chairman James Salas.
Salas said negotiations were "about to come apart" when Walter made the suggestion four days before the scheduled January 26 start of a trial for one plaintiff in the civil suit. That case, involving a twelve-year-old boy who alleged he was choked by a dorm parent in the winter of the 1994-5 school year, had been separated from the other fourteen plaintiffs to establish a benchmark value in the case.
Salas said $1.2 million is "a lot of money." But, he said, "When you compare it to the cost of real litigation and the cost of potential appeals and the intangible costs that all of the employees were bearing in terms of the negative umbrella hanging over the school, we thought it was a good investment."
Most of the abuse alleged in the suit involved sexual assaults by other students. But a dorm parent, a former school principal, and a coach also were accused of inflicting physical or sexual abuse against students in a series of incidents between 1973 and 1996.
One former female student, the first to go public with criticism of the school, said she was gang-raped at knifepoint by four other students in the school gym in 1976 and then told to remain quiet when the incident was reported to the former school superintendent.
Salas said the settlement was not an acknowledgement that administrators had been negligent or a sign that school officials feared losing the civil suit.
"Obviously we thought we were going to win, but you just don't know," Salas said. "When you go in front of a jury, you just don't know. And we didn't want to go through all that. What it boils down to is it was just an economic issue."
Bruce Pasternack, the plaintiffs' Albuquerque-based attorney who filed suit in 1996, said his clients had been vindicated, both by the settlement and by a recent U.S. Justice Department report critical of the school's educational and administrative practices.
"You had an institution that had vociferously denied any wrongdoing, and what has come to be shown in the past few months is that they paid a lot of money to remedy the wrongdoing they said they didn't commit, and the Justice Department found they committed the wrongdoing they denied," Pasternack said.
A U.S. Justice Department report released earlier this year criticized the School for the Visually Handicapped for failing to teach many students how to read Braille and to walk with a cane. The report also said the school, as recently as late 1997, had an inadequate abuse-reporting system, but it did not deal with specific allegations of physical or sexual abuse.
Pasternack said the point of filing the civil suit was never to recover monetary damages but rather "making sure that appropriate changes were made at the school." The attorney said he received a percentage of each client's individual settlement but said he could not recall the exact total.
The school has submitted a proposed remediation plan to the Justice Department but has not received a reply, said new NMSVH Superintendent Nell Carney.