MORAGA -- School district trustees on Wednesday apologized to a former student for saying in legal papers that she may have borne some responsibility for the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of former teachers.
School board members, stung by public outcry that the legal language was part of those filings, also directed their attorneys to withdraw the offending language from those papers.
The papers were filed in response to a lawsuit brought by Kristen Cunnane, a Cal women's swim assistant head coach and Walnut Creek resident. She sued the district and three former administrators for negligence, fraudulent concealment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Cunnane, 30, claims her abuse by two Moraga intermediate school teachers in the 1990s was caused by administrators repeatedly ignoring allegations of abuse.
In the district's Oct. 24 legal response to Cunnane's suit, it stated two "affirmative defenses" to her allegations. In one, the district, said Cunnane "was herself careless and negligent in and about the matters alleged in the complaint, and that said carelessness and negligence on said Plaintiff's part proximately contributed to the happenings of the incident ..."
The other stated, "Defendants allege that (Cunnane) was herself responsible for the acts and damages of which she claims ... "
All of that wording has been removed from the district response, board Vice President Charles MacNulty announced after the trustees finished a four-hour special closed session meeting Wednesday.
"The governing board and its attorneys, Stubbs and Leone, apologize to Ms. Cunnane for any anxiety or distress caused by the inclusion of this defense in its response to her pleading," he said.
Originally, the district's attorney and superintendent said those and all defenses had to be included in the first legal filing or the district would waive the right to use them in the future to vigorously defend themselves against a potentially large payout.
The board voted 4-0 Wednesday to apologize and change the legal language, with board president Dexter Louie recusing himself.
Cunnane said the past week has been tough but that she has received overwhelming backing from friends, family and strangers.
"I am so grateful for the support I faced in the aftermath of the school district's initial response," she said. "I feel like it is this support that encouraged the apology, and for that, I am extremely thankful."
Cunnane's attorney Paul Llewellyn echoed her thoughts.
"We appreciate the apology and are pleased that the district is formally withdrawing the defenses," he said. "We hope this signals the start of a more productive dialogue."
A New York-based nonprofit Stop Abuse Campaign even started an online petition -- which had reached nearly 2,000 signatures as of Wednesday from all over the world -- calling for an apology from the district's attorney. Andrew Willis, CEO of Stop Abuse Campaign and an abuse survivor, said the attorney's initial response that the language casting blame on the victim was standard in such cases "encapsulated the problem in a very simple way."
"For us it was a classic example of the sort of culture shame that surrounds abuse," Willis said.
"We're delighted that what we believe is the responsible thing was done, and we're happy they apologized to the survivor involved and we hope they have changed their policy in the future so this doesn't happen again."The Moraga schools' attorney Louis Leone also represents the Lafayette School District and used similar defense language in that district's response to a lawsuit filed by a Jane Doe claiming district officials knew former teacher Michael Merrick had fondled other students in the past and that nothing was done, which led to her own sexual abuse. Merrick pleaded guilty in January to six felony counts of lewd conduct with a minor.
Lafayette school trustees met in special closed session Wednesday afternoon to discuss Jane Doe's lawsuit, and later announced a unanimous vote to "withdraw the defense of comparative fault and any assertion of carelessness or negligence" on the part of Jane Doe.
Board president Stephanie Teichman said, "It has never been the intention of the (Lafayette) school district to cause anxiety or distress to Jane Doe."
Staff writer Jennifer Modenessi contributed to this report. Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.