PHILADELPHIA (AP) Allentown public schools signed a federal oversight plan Monday after a judge called their response to reports that a 12-year-old was molesting first-graders in a boys' bathroom "wholly inadequate."
The consent decree comes weeks after the school district settled a lawsuit with four families for $825,000. The U.S. Department of Justice had joined the 2006 lawsuit.
The families complained that the school failed to keep their 6- and 7-year-old boys safe at Central Elementary School in 2003-2004 despite earlier reports that an older student was threatening or groping boys.
U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond said a jury could find the school was "deliberately indifferent" to the victims' safety.
District lawyer John Freund insisted Monday that there was no legal requirement to call police until the final incident, a sexual assault.
"These are little kids whose complaints did not at all appear criminal, initially. When the school district knew that there was an assault, the police were called immediately," Freund told The Associated Press.
Plaintiffs' lawyer James Pfeiffer said the school should have called sooner to help victims and the perpetrator. He remains in custody after being found legally responsible as a juvenile for the sexual assault.
"It was a complete failure to the perpetrator, as well as the victims," Pfeiffer said. "If they would have gotten to him early, ... maybe he would have gotten the help that he needed and those other kids wouldn't have been victimized."
The first victim, "John Doe 1," was in first grade when the 12-year-old special-education student crawled into his stall, pulled down his pants and touched his "crotch," Diamond wrote in upholding part of the case in March.
A teacher who saw the 12-year-old leave the bathroom tried to find his picture in a yearbook. She could not. That ended the school's investigation, Diamond said.
Another first-grader, "John Doe 3," then said that an older boy had crawled into his stall, covered his mouth, threatened him and tried to touch his genitals. The first-grader was taken to the cafeteria at lunch to try to find him.
"When he was unable to do so, (the) assistant principal ... ended his inquiry. Given the seriousness of the attack, and the previous known bathroom incidents, a reasonable jury could find that school officials acted with deliberate indifference ... by failing to investigate further or institute bathroom safety measures," Diamond wrote.
Even after the suspect was identified, he remained at school, with orders that he be escorted to the bathroom.
Then came what Freund called "a perfect storm."
The fifth-grader was serving an in-school suspension when a substitute put him out in the hallway after a disruption. He soon fled to the nearby bathroom and sexually assaulted the final victim.
"There was a confluence of circumstances that did occur, there's no question about it," Freund said. "It was basically a perfect storm."
Diamond upheld the claims of the four later victims, while dismissing the first complaint because the school had only vague information earlier.
One boy withdrew from the school afterward, while others were fearful about going to school or using school bathrooms. A jury could find that the Allentown district denied them their right to an education free of sexual harassment under Title IX, Diamond wrote. Title IX, better known for providing girls equal access to sports, also outlaws sexual harassment at school.
The consent decree calls for the Allentown School District to hire a consultant to help them study, implement and monitor federal sexual harassment policies. Federal funds will be used for the program, Freund said.