A Florida school district is expected this week to approve a $3.6 million settlement in a years-long lawsuit brought by four third-grade girls who said they were molested by a teacher in 2005.
But that move comes after the district’s outside law firm once appeared to blame the children, in part, for their own sexual abuse. (A lawyer with the firm reportedly disputes this characterization.)
The four girls — each about 9 years old at the time — said that their teacher, Blake Sinrod, had groped them and forced them to touch him, according to the suit.
Sinrod pleaded guilty in May 2006 to child abuse charges involving two of his students, records show. Prosecutors declined to pursue cases involving the third and fourth students, the Sun Sentinel reports.
Sinrod was fired in 2006 and his teaching license was revoked in 2008, according to the newspaper. Adjudication of his abuse charges was reportedly withheld after he satisfied the terms of his probation.
When the girls’ parents allegedly discovered other accusations against the same teacher, they sued the Palm Beach School District in 2006 for negligence.
But in court filings obtained by PEOPLE, lawyers for the school district claimed that the children themselves were negligent and contributed to the molestation.
“The Plaintiffs were old enough to appreciate the consequences of their own actions and to be held accountable for them,” the school district wrote in one answer in 2010.
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“Through their actions and/or omissions, plaintiffs conducted themselves in a careless and negligent manner,” the filing continued, “and such negligence was a contributing and/or sole proximate cause of their injuries and damages.”
An attorney for the Palm Beach County School Board did not return a call for comment, but the current members of the board have sought to distance themselves from the controversial defense.
“The board, with its attorneys, must consider all legal defenses on a case-by-case basis,” the board said in a statement obtained by PEOPLE. “However, this current School Board has never taken the position that a child could be implicit in their own child abuse.”
Dale Friedman, a lawyer with the firm who drafted the 2010 filing, told the Sun Sentinel that the argument was not about blaming the children and was instead an example of “comparative negligence.”
Friedman said the purpose was to cite other information that could mitigate the damages the district may owe: “We have never blamed these girls or given the appearance of holding the girls responsible for what their teacher did.”
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The case has moved slowly for more than a decade, eventually ending up in the Florida Supreme Court.
Last week, the parties agreed to a $3.6 million settlement, which is expected to be approved by the school board this week. Representatives from the school district were not immediately available for comment.
“I would just say that it’s unfortunate that it took 11 years of litigation to bring this case to a conclusion,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Marc Wites, tells PEOPLE. “An appeals process was happening simultaneously, so this took a very long time.”
Wites says that the four girls, now adults, have been working to move forward from their abuse.
“It’s hard for this to come back into the news again,” he says. “But they’re trying to look at it in a positive light: This is the end of the lawsuit; they can move on. But they’ll still have to live with this for the rest of their lives.”