Darien schools embroiled in federal lawsuit
Updated 6:41 pm, Friday, April 5, 2013
The defendants in a lawsuit filed against the Darien Board of Education and 10 of its employees deny that a 14-year-old boy with Down syndrome was sexually assaulted by Zachary Hasak at Tokeneke Elementary School in October 2009, but acknowledge that the two of them were alone in a classroom on more than one occasion.
In October 2011, the student and his parents, referred to as John Doe and Mr. and Mrs. Robert Doe, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the Darien Board of Education, the Town of Darien and Hasak, a former Darien schools paraprofessional, as well as Robin Pavia, Melissa Bellino, Donald Fiftal, Stephen Falcone, Mary Lee Fisher, Nicole Ruospo, Marc Marin, Carleen Wood and John Woodwring, all of whom were employees of the Darien Public Schools during the time of the alleged incident.
According to the lawsuit, Hasak, Pavia, Bellino, Fiftal, Falcone, Fisher, Ruospo, Marin, Wood and Woodwring were involved in the days following the incident or alleged physical abuse toward the student a year later at Middlesex Middle School.
An amended complaint was filed on Monday, April 1, claiming that Andrea Cunha, Tokeneke Elementary School psychologist, and Laura Conte, assistant director of special education for elementary schools, also had knowledge of the abuse and did not report it.
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The parents claim that their son, who is no longer in the Darien school system, "has suffered permanent and emotional harm, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and will require treatment and enhanced supervision for the rest of his life."
In February, the defendants filed a motion to compel the plaintiffs to provide information that shows additional expenses for the student, which the defense expects to receive by July 1.
"While in the classroom, alone with the student, Defendant Hasak exposed himself to the student, made sexual advances toward the student and encouraged the student to engage in sexual activity with him," the lawsuit states. In their response, the defendants deny the allegation.
According to the lawsuit, the student "refused to engage in sexual activity" with Hasak, who the parents claim threatened to hurt him if he told anyone about the alleged advances, which the defense denies in its response filed March 20.
The parents claim Hasak was not supposed to be alone with their son for any length of time "without direct supervision from a certified teacher or special education teacher."
However, Catherine S. Nietzel, an attorney representing all the defendants, said, "We assert that he was allowed to be alone with the student and that it was his job to do so."
According to the lawsuit, the parents claim that 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' response asserts that Hasak was not a certified teacher and was not qualified to, and did not, provide academic instruction to the student.
The parents claim that their son told Bellino, his special education teacher, about the incident, but the defendants deny that.
An interview with the student and school employees took place after the parents reported the incident to Eileen Luddy, the independent consultant for the student who works for Luddy and Associates, and Falcone, then-assistant schools superintendent, on that same day and, according to the lawsuit, the school employees who conducted the interview "believed the student's assertions that he had been abused by Hasak."
According to the defendants' response, they "deny that they told Mr. and Mrs. Doe that they believed the student's assertions that he had been abused."
The parents then filed a complaint with the Darien Police Department, whose Youth Division conducted an investigation.
On Nov. 23, 2009, the state Department of Children and Families found probable cause that Hasak had abused the child, but reversed its findings on Feb. 9, 2010, after Hasak passed a lie-detector test.
Joette Katz, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, and Ingrid Aarons, the program manager of the Norwalk DCF office, were included in the initial lawsuit but the U.S. District Court dismissed them in September 2012.
When their son was a student at Middlesex Middle School the following year, the parents claim that Ruospo, his special education teacher, abused him by "shoving him, by kicking his feet out from under him, by knocking him to the floor and preventing him from getting up by kicking his feet out from under his when he tried to stand up and by secluding him," some of which, the parents claim, Marin, the assistant principal, saw.
The parents claim a lack of training for reporting abuse for educators led to the continued alleged abuse of their son, which the defense denies.
The defendants are being sued for liability of the board for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act; violation of Title IX by the board; violation of due process; violation of procedural due process; assault and battery and reckless and wanton conduct against Hasak and Ruospo; negligence; and statutory liability.
The parents are seeking relief for compensatory and punitive damages and changes to DCF policies.
"This is a long time from being done," said David Shaw, the parent and student's attorney, who declined to comment further.
Messages left for Hasak, Pavia, Falcone, and Bethany Karas, who also represents Hasak, were not returned.
Provided a settlement isn't reached, the case is set to go to trial in July 2014.
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