Ex-Tokeneke School aide found guilty of sex abuse
Published 10:21 am, Wednesday, August 12, 2015
A jury found a former Tokeneke School paraprofessional guilty of committing sexual abuse of a 12-year old boy with Down Syndrome in 2009.
The verdict concluded a 4-year-old lawsuit against Zachary Hasak and the town of Darien in New Haven federal court last week.
In awarding $100,000 in damages to the student referred to as John Doe, the jury rejected other claims of sexual assault or touching by Hasak. The verdict also cleared the only two remaining school employees not previously dismissed or voluntarily dropped from the suit of accusations they knew of the abuse and failed to act. Over time, claims were dropped against the town and school district employees named in the suit, including former director of special education Robin Pavia and former superintendents Donald Fiftal and Steven Falcone, because of a lack of evidence to support claims they willfully failed to protect the student.
The damages were awarded in a jury verdict on Aug. 4, and makes Hasak liable for the $100,000 “past expenses and future non-economic damages.”
Gary Mayerson, an attorney representing the student and his family, said the verdict helped validate the claims of the boy, who faced scrutiny over the accusations due to his condition. Mayerson said the family was disappointed the claims against the district and other defendants fell short.
“We were hoping the jury’s verdict would have been broader but the family is pleased justice was done,” Mayerson said. “I told the jury it was not for money but it was for the principle, which was equally if not more important to them (the family).”
The plaintiff’s lawsuit claimed that while alone in a classroom with the boy, Hasak exposed himself to the student and made sexual advances, and when the boy refused allegedly threatened to hurt the boy if he told anyone. All the defendants, including the town and school district, denied the charges.
According to the lawsuit, the parents claimed Pavia, who was the director of special education and student services at the time and Hasak’s aunt — and Fiftal, then-schools superintendent — hired Hasak in the 2009-10 school year without “adequately checking” his background or experience working with special-needs students, which the defendants deny.
The defendants’ countered that Hasak was not a certified teacher and was not qualified to, and did not, provide academic instruction to the student.
Hasak will appeal the verdict, according to a statement sent by John Blasi, Hasak’s Waterbury-based civil attorney. Blasi noted the relatively modest damages as an indication of the jury being underwhelmed by the evidence of any sexual abuse.
The statement also questioned pretrial evidence rulings that blocked exculpatory evidence for Hasak, including that an investigation by the Darien Police Youth Division found no probable cause to charge Hasak, two lie detector tests that Hasak passed, and that Hasak was cleared by the Department of Children and Families in 2010 of wrongdoing.
“The fact that the jury found no willful, wanton conduct and awarded no punitive damages, which are designed to punish wrongful conduct, clearly demonstrates that no intentional, wrongful physical contact ever occurred,” Blasi’s statement said. “…The unfortunate takeaway from the verdict may be that others may be dissuaded from taking on the responsibility of caring for children with special needs who may mis-perceive or mis-report about things they experience in their environment.”
The verdict also found in favor of the Darien Public Schools, with the jury rejecting a claim the Darien Public School district violated Title IX and had a discriminatory animus against the victim because of his disability. The final two school employees not already voluntarily dropped or dismissed from the suit who were cleared by the verdict were Laura Conte, assistant director of special education, and Melissa Bellino, a special education teacher; with the jury finding insufficient evidence evidence they knew of abuse but failed to act.
“The district is pleased to have the last remaining charges against it rejected by the jury,” said Catherine Nietzel, an attorney representing the town and its employees in the suit. “…The district is happy its former special education teacher and administrator were completely exonerated by the verdict.”