Hoonah School District found liable in slashing

Posted: Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Hoonah School District has been ordered to pay more than $80,000 to the victim of a 2002 classroom slashing attack involving high school girls.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins issued the judgment last week based on a jury's verdict at the April trial. Jurors found the school district 95 percent liable for damages to the victim, who was 13 at the time. They set pre-interest damages at $61,740.

"The school had the duty to protect its students," said Louis Menendez, who filed the suit in April 2003 on behalf of Christopher Mills, father of the victim. He said he was not surprised by the way the jury divided the liability.

In the final judgment Collins ordered the Hoonah School District to pay $58,653 of the award, plus $23,750 in interest. She ordered the assailant to pay $3,087 plus $1,250 in interest.

The girl who committed the assault, who was 14, was named as a defendant in the suit. Because of her age, her name is not printed.

"She was barely out of childhood," her attorney, Tony Strong, said Wednesday. He said the victim actually was his client's best friend.

Strong said the principal could have prevented the assault by separating the girls.

Anchorage attorney Frank Koziol, who represented the school district, declined to comment on the case.

Strong said both girls testified at trial that his client told the principal to "do something" about the victim shortly before the assault, although the girls disagreed on whether she said she would "kill her."

On Feb. 13, 2002, with no teacher in Room 418, Strong's client attacked the victim "without provocation," Menendez alleged. She used a butane lighter that had been modified to include sharpened metal edges.

Before a teacher came into a classroom and separated the girls, the victim sustained cuts on both sides of her face, on her right eyelid and below the right eyebrow, according to Menendez' complaint, which was illustrated with pictures of the injuries.

Menendez argued the defendant failed to adequately supervise the classroom, and that school officials knew or should have known the assailant was violent.

Strong said an alleged threat made by his client against a substitute teacher on Jan. 25, 2002, was taken out of context. He said her statement that she would get a gun and kill the woman if there weren't any laws came as part of a rambling statement after the substitute sent her to the principal's office.

After that statement, police were notified and the school brought in a psychologist to see the girl, Strong explained. He said the psychologist allowed his client back into school before the assault.

Menendez argued in his original complaint that the school had an obligation to discover the assailant was carrying a weapon and to warn other students and parents if a student is carrying a weapon.

Strong argued that his client was being harassed by other students. She and her mother had gone to school officials looking for something to be done. He said the girl was a straight-A student until she got to the seventh grade and started drinking and associating with an older crowd.

He said he believes testimony showing his client was harassed influenced the jury. He talked with jury members after the trial. During the trial, one juror in a note to the judge asked about the school's policy on harassment, he added.

The jury established the victim's losses at $25,000 for past noneconomic damages, $5,100 for future noneconomic damages and $31,640 for future economic damages.

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