Knoxville — The first pending civil trial stemming from the actions of former West Elementary Principal Sidney Graham is scheduled to begin Aug. 6. However, arguments are still being made regarding the case before it is ever presented to a jury.
Graham, as well as the Knoxville Community School District and Sheldon Davids, are named as defendants in a case filed by one of Graham's sexual abuse victims. The lawsuit alleges that the school district carries liability for what happened to the plaintiff as a child within the school system. This is not only from the abuse he suffered from Graham, but claims of further emotional and mental distress as he grew older.
Graham pled guilty to two counts of third-degree sexual abuse in 2004. He continues to serve two, 10-year prison sentences.
A motion for summary judgment in the J.S. civil case was filed by Brad Beaman, on behalf of the school district and Davids on June 7. A hearing was held today regarding that motion. Prior to argument on the motion, Judge Gary Kimes expressed his concern regarding the timing of the motion and the trial. This lawsuit was filed in October 2010 and was scheduled to go to trial in May, before being continued to August.
"The motions you have filed are quite extensive," Kimes said. Given that the trial is expected to begin within three weeks concerns him, as well as the fact that the 10-day trial will coincide with the Knoxville Nationals. Attorneys for J.S., the school district and Davids recognize this concern.
Beaman's argument for summary judgment sought dismissal of the charges against Davids and the school district. Graham has his own counsel, who was not present at this hearing. Beaman argued that disciplinary treatment of J.S. was known to the plaintiff's mother, as it was discussed when the district formulated the individual education plan for J.S. The plaintiff alleges that she did not know her son would be placed in a "time out" room.
"It's all based on generalities," Beaman said of the plaintiff's argument. "She even called the school about J.S. being placed in time out."
The plaintiff's attorneys, Ron Danks and Phil Myers, alleged in the lawsuit that the Constitutional rights of their client, J.S., were violated by the school district. Beaman argued that they did not support their claim with adequate facts.
As Beaman argued for dismissal of the case against Davids, he said Davids is entitled to qualified immunity in the case. Patrick Smith, the other defense attorney, explained that this generally means that someone cannot be held liable for violating someone's Constitutional rights if he or she is unaware they are violating them.
The plaintiff is also seeking punitive damages against the school district. Beaman indicated that the Iowa Code does not allow a municipality, which includes school districts, cannot be subject to punitive damages.
"There's no question J.S. was abused by Sid Graham," Beaman said. He went on to say that Graham's conduct does not relay into any liability by the school district.
One of the counts in the plaintiff's complaint is that the school district was negligent, both in hiring Graham and allowing him to take J.S. and others on unsupervised overnight trips. Beaman said that no evidence existed prior to Graham's employ to indicate that he would sexually abuse a child. He added that the mother knew more about the situation than the school district.
"His mother game permission for him to go on these trips," Beaman said.
Letter to Graham in 2001
A letter was sent to Graham by Superintendent Randy Flack in 2001, in regard to taking students on unsupervised trips. The letter followed a trip to a soccer game, one in which J.S. is said to have not been involved. Graham was counseled, according to Beaman, about the appearance of impropriety that came with the trip. Beaman added that the letter was not prompted by suspicions of sexual abuse, which the plaintiff is alleging.
"(Flack) knew people would think there was a sexual act going on," Danks alleged. He added that a reasonable person would foresee the fact injuries could be sustained during the trip, something Beaman refuted in a rebuttal.
Danks told the court that Flack allegedly talked to the parents of the students who went on the 2001 soccer trip. He went on to say that in his deposition, Flack allegedly admitted to not telling the Knoxville School Board he had sent the letter. Mike Helle, who was President of the School Board at the time, said he had not been told of the letter. Danks also claimed that Flack did not share his concerns with the police and was not aware of the names or amount of victims. For these reasons, Danks believes there is sufficient evidence to support the claim of negligent supervision.
The plaintiff's argument regarding the district's liability included the fact that Graham may not have met his victims if he was not in the school's employ.
"(Graham) met them through the school. His contacts with them were through the school," Danks said.
"Just because (Graham) was in the position of principal...there was no vicarious liability," Beaman argued in rebuttal.
"This case is almost like two different cases," Smith said. This is because the allegations against the defendants occurred not only during the time J.S. was sexually abused, but in the years after.
Kimes did not rule on the motion for summary judgment, to allow both sides to provide further documentation and argument to make their cases. He encouraged the attorneys for both sides to keep in contact, communicate well and try to work things out on their own as much as possible.
"I don't know what kind of time frame we're talking about," Kimes said. "I don't know how in the world you folks expect this to go to trial on Aug. 6." He asked the attorneys to agree on a time frame for submitting more information.
Beaman was also concerned about compelling information from the plaintiff. Dozens of witnesses have been listed to possibly testify. Danks said a list would be provided soon. Smith and Beaman also sought contents from the Facebook page of J.S., which was granted.
Updates on other three cases
Online court records do not indicate trial dates in two of the three remaining civil cases against Graham and the school district. The J.S. trial remains scheduled for Aug. 6. A trial involving plaintiff Kris Oksa, now an adult who has allowed his story to be told, is scheduled to begin Feb. 18, 2013.