September 13, 2022
By Lauren Lumpkin
A prominent Reform synagogue in the District has argued that parents suing over alleged child sex abuse surrendered their right to bring a lawsuit when they signed activity waivers upon enrolling their children in school, court documents show.
A group of parents in 2019 sued Washington Hebrew Congregation, claiming that leaders at Edlavitch-Tyser Early Childhood Center ignored warning signs as a teacher sexually abused toddlers. The suit also said the employee was allowed to be alone with students despite District regulations that require at least two adults to be present with toddlers in licensed child development centers.
Now, recent developments in the years-long suit have brought renewed attention to the case. In July, attorneys for Washington Hebrew Congregation filed a motion for summary judgment, a request for the court to make a ruling before a trial. The school’s attorneys argued that, in the paperwork parents signed, they gave up their right to sue.
Among those documents that parents completed was a consent and liability waiver that stated “neither parents nor their children will bring claims against WHC or any of its employees for personal injuries sustained ‘as a result of’ a child’s ‘participation in these activities [of the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Edlavitch-Tyser Early Childhood Center],’” court documents show.
But parents understood those “activities” to include “typical preschool activities,” parents’ attorneys responded in court records. “Not a single plaintiff parent who signed the release contemplated that it would cover injuries sustained as a result of their children being sexually abused by a trusted WHC employee.”
Because the teacher was not criminally charged or listed as a defendant in the lawsuit, The Washington Post is not naming him. Following a high-profile investigation in 2018, D.C. police said there was “insufficient probable cause” to make an arrest. Fourteen children were allegedly abused, according to court documents.
Karen Dunn, a lawyer for nine of the plaintiff families, urged the court to deny Washington Hebrew Congregation’s motion for summary judgment.
“Among other absurdities, WHC’s reading of the release’s text would require the court to find that damage caused by sexual abuse was damage caused by participation in a school activity,” Dunn stated in the filing. The employee was also not properly vetted, the families — who are not identified in the lawsuit — claim.
Joan Meier, a professor and director of the National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University, called the school’s defense outrageous.
“It’s almost unimaginable to me that the standard liability waiver would be applied to child sexual abuse because that waiver is designed for the kinds of things that happen in preschools, like kids falling off a climbing structure,” Meier said. “There is no way any parent would put kids in school if that was the case.”
School attorneys declined to comment on the argument that parents had waived their right to sue.
“The families’ claims are the subject of a pending lawsuit. The families’ identities and all of the evidence about their children is under seal, so Washington Hebrew Congregation cannot comment outside of court on the merits of their claims. It will continue to defend itself in court,” said a statement from a school representative.
The statement also said that families’ allegations have been taken seriously since they were reported.
“As soon as Washington Hebrew Congregation learned of the allegations, it reported them to the Metropolitan Police Department and Child Protective Services,” according to the statement.
The school on Friday filed a response to the plaintiffs’ opposition to summary judgment, calling their argument “fundamentally flawed,” adding there is “no material factual dispute” the alleged child abuse occurred while in the care of Washington Hebrew Congregation staff.
“Plaintiffs’ entire case is premised on the minors being injured ‘on school property, during the school day, by a member of the teaching staff,’ ” attorneys for the school wrote.
The defendants also said the plaintiffs’ argument that “sexual abuse is not a school activity” is essentially a request that the court nullify the waivers parents signed. Under that reasoning, the school’s attorney’s said, any injury could be deemed not to be a school activity to “circumvent the release.”
A trial date is scheduled for March 13.
Emily Davies contributed to this report.