Two girls who were molested as third-graders in Florida in 2005 have finally spoken out after they were awarded a $3.6 million settlement from the school district who once appeared to blame them for their own sexual abuse.
From the office of their attorney, Marc Wites, the two girls — now young women — requested that they be called Janie Doe A and Janie Doe B as they spoke out to select media, including PEOPLE, on Thursday night. (Because the women are victims of sexual assault, PEOPLE has agreed not to publish their names.)
“We were little girls,” says Janie Doe A. “We were little girls who were brave enough, strong enough and had the courage to use our voices to speak up, to tell, and to get help.”
The case started in 2005, when Does A and B and two other girls — all four 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 lawsuit, obtained by PEOPLE.
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Sinrod was fired in 2006 and his teaching license was revoked two years later, according to the newspaper. Adjudication of his abuse charges was 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 Florida for negligence.
At one point in the years while the suit was working its way through the court system, the district’s outside law firm appeared to blame the children, in part, for their own abuse. (One of the firm’s attorneys disputes this characterization.)
In court filings obtained by PEOPLE, lawyers for the school district argued 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.
“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.”
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On Thursday, the young women strongly disagreed with the contention that they contributed to their own abuse.
“We are not to blame or bear responsibility,” says Janie Doe A. “This type of defense is what makes victims feel ashamed and embarrassed and afraid to come forward. It makes me feel disgusted that the school board would use this defense, when their sole responsibility is to protect its students from harm.”
Adds Janie Doe B: “Many victims feel like it’s their fault and that they are accountable for what happened to them in some way. I’m here to say that it’s not your fault, and you are not alone. Don’t be afraid to speak up.”
An attorney for the Palm Beach County School Board has not return multiple calls 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.”
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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.”
One school board member told the Sun Sentinel, “It is my intent to ensure that this type of defense is never, ever used again in the district. The board had no knowledge that this was the manner in which the school district was going to defend the case, and in no way is it appropriate. I think we’re all outraged.”
The girls are relieved that the legal case is done.
“It took 12 years to close this case and get what the system calls justice,” says Janie Doe A. “But we will carry this pain forever. The settlement has freed us from the court system, but it can never take away our pain.”