Sunday, October 18, 2015


Steve Lopez

by Steve Lopez | LA Times Columnist |


Oct 17, 2015  2pm ::  He's back?

You've got to be kidding me.

I'm talking about the lawyer who got dumped by the Los Angeles Unified School District last year after arguing, in a civil trial, that a 13-year-old student was partly to blame for her 28-year-old math teacher's sexual abuse of her.

Why? Because she was mature enough to consent to sex.

I know. You want to go back and read that again to see if you missed something.

The district severed ties with lawyer W. Keith Wyatt last fall, no surprise there. But now comes news that Wyatt was back on the job for LAUSD after just a few months, billing the district for $4,500 in legal fees this year.

"I think it's completely inappropriate that we have brought this attorney back to work for the district," LAUSD board member Monica Ratliff said last week.

We do not support blaming students. Not now, not ever. - Dave Holmquist, general counsel for the L.A. Unified School District

But district general counsel Dave Holmquist disagreed, saying Wyatt and his law firm had "learned from their mistakes."

I don't know about that, and Wyatt hasn't returned my calls.

As for Holmquist, I'll get back to him in a minute. First, let me review how we got where we are.

Edison Middle School teacher Elkis Hermida was convicted on criminal charges of lewd acts against a child and sentenced to three years in prison in 2011. The criminal activity included having sex with the child in a classroom. Hermida also drove the student to motels for sex, but was eventually found out and fired after sending a nude video of himself to the child.

In a separate civil case, the student sued, accusing LAUSD of negligence for not supervising the teacher. The district argued that it was unaware of the abuse, and a jury decided in the district's favor.

It was during that civil trial that Wyatt, representing the district, argued that the girl had a prior history of sexual activity and was mature enough to consent to sex with her teacher. And the defense team trotted out a psychologist who testified that the girl's relationship with the teacher would have made her more mature because she'd had "experiences which most teenagers don't have to deal with."

In other words, getting sexually assaulted makes you more grown up.

But as repugnant as the maturity argument was, it's not what got Wyatt fired. His trouble began when he told KPCC, which broke the story last year, that it was more dangerous for a teen to cross a street in traffic than to have sex with her teacher.

"She lied to her mother so she could have ... sex with her teacher," Wyatt told Karen Foshay, who was a reporter at the station at the time. "She went to a motel in which she engaged in voluntary consensual sex with her teacher. Why shouldn't she be responsible for that?"

Because she was a child, that's why.

Because her abuser was an adult, in a position of authority, who exploited her.

If that's not obvious, something's wrong.

Wyatt later apologized for his comments to KPCC, and Holmquist apologized to the family on behalf of the district. Holmquist said at the time that Wyatt was being barred from further legal work with the district because of his "inappropriate remarks" to the radio station.

I don't get that. I don't see why Wyatt's comments to KPCC were any more offensive than what he did in court. And I say that even though, at the time of trial, the law in California civil cases had a perverse loophole by which a minor could be judged capable of consenting to sex.

But that was a rarely used tactic, and it was so odiously employed in the LAUSD case that the law was later changed. The age of consent in civil cases is now 18.

And W. Keith Wyatt is now back on the payroll at LAUSD, with Holmquist arguing that his law firm has done "outstanding legal work" for LAUSD for 28 years, and that Wyatt has learned his lesson.

"We believe that the suspension was sufficient to drive home our concerns about statements he made," Holmquist said.

"We do not support blaming students. Not now, not ever," Holmquist told me, saying he would not have used the strategy Wyatt used in court, but that he doesn't micromanage contracted attorneys.

Maybe he should.

I'm told by district officials that Wyatt's law firm — Ivie, McNeill and Wyatt — is politically powerful and one of the few minority-owned law firms LAUSD contracts with. I asked Holmquist if that had anything to do with Wyatt's reinstatement after just a few months.

"Not from our perspective," he said.

At last week's LAUSD meeting, board member Monica Garcia joined Ratliff in questioning the rehiring of Wyatt. But board member George McKenna defended it.

"The attorney did what he felt he should do to represent us and win the case," McKenna said.

First of all, Wyatt didn't have to throw a student under the bus to make his case. And second, attacking the integrity of a child has backfired.

An appellate court last month reversed LAUSD's victory, saying it was wrong of the trial judge to allow evidence of the victim's sexual history and to claim that she was partly at fault for her own abuse.

"There is no case or statutory authority or persuasive reasoning," the appellate court said, "supporting the notion that students sexually victimized by their teachers can be contributorily responsible for the harm they suffer."

Ratliff and LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer told me they want to establish clear guidelines, going forward, as to what strategies are acceptable in civil suits.

"I believe you can defend the district against egregious liability without in any way attacking or blaming the victim," said Zimmer.

"We are a school district," said Ratliff. "We care about kids. We represent kids. And we cannot be disparaging victims in that manner."

Nor should they be paying a plug nickel to anyone who does.

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