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NJ Civil Settlements

Collingswood Board of Education paid out $950,000 to settle family’s lawsuit claiming that school officials did not take proper steps to prevent pre-teen’s sexual assault.

On November 11, 2020, Camden County Judge Yolanda C. Rodriquez confirmed a settlement that called for the Collingswood school board to pay $950,000 to a Borough family who claimed that their twelve-year old daughter, despite their best efforts to have the school supervise the girl’s access to the Internet, used her school-issued laptop to chat with and eventually meet a 21-year-old Florida man in a Philadelphia hotel where the man sexually assaulted her.

In her lawsuit, the Collingswood Middle School 7th grader, identified by her initials, K.S. and her parents, similarly identified in the suit as M.S. and T.S., claimed that the laptop the school furnished to K.S. “failed to have proper limitations or controls installed which would prevent students from accessing unauthorized or inappropriate sites [or] which would prevent third parties from communicating with minor students.”

According to the lawsuit, K.S. began communicating with Liam Heim, a Gulfport, Florida man, who moderated a Discord on-line forum called the Dokie Literature Club. According to the Justice Department’s September 19, 2019 press release, Heim “groomed [K.S.] to believe that they were in a romantic relationship, eventually convincing her to meet with him in person so that he could sexually assault her.” Heim was convicted of transportation of a minor in interstate commerce with intent to engage in unlawful sexual activity and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

K.S.’s parents claimed that school officials ignored their requests for a search history of their daughter’s computer, to limit her Internet usage and to block websites that were unrelated to her school work. The parents said that in February 2018 they “became increasingly concerned about their daughter’s use of the laptop for non-school related purposes” and told school officials that they didn’t want their daughter to bring the laptop home after school. They claimed that the school district agreed to require K.S. to leave the laptop at school at the end of the day but later failed to supervise and control K.S.’s computer usage.

The family’s lawsuit also claimed that Adrienne Earle, a Middle School guidance counselor, was informed of the communications between Heim and K.S. by another student and was shown the communications between them. Despite this knowledge, the lawsuit claimed, Earle never contacted K.S.’s parents, school officials or law enforcement.

Of the $950,000 settlement, $650,000 was for K.S. and $300,000 was for her parents. Out of her $650,000 share, K.S.’s attorney received $185,427 in attorney fees and costs leaving K.S. with a net recovery of $464,573 to be paid out as a structured settlement. Out of their $300,000 share, K.S.’s parents received $200,000 with their lawyer receiving the other $100,000 as an attorney fee.

The case is captioned M.S. et al v. Collingwood School District, et al, Docket No. CAM-L-3196-19 and the plaintiffs’ attorney was John A. Zohlman of Cherry Hill Case documents are on-line here.

None of the family’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants. All that is known for sure is that the Collingwood school board or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the family $950,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

By John Paff

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to paff@pobox.com