Charleston County School District settles defamation case with sex-ed committee member
A community volunteer who sued the Charleston County School District for alleged defamation has settled his case for $95,000.
What she said
The following is an excerpt of an e-mail written by Charleston County School Boad Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats to Alfons Schirduan.
“Don’t ever lie to me again – it seriously calls into question your reasoning for wanting to serve on the HAC. And it certainly calls into question the character of Will if he is allowing you to lie on his behalf to insure (SIC) that you can gain whatever agenda you have for HAC,” Coats wrote. “The fact that you have lied about your relationship with current HAC members and attempted to cover up your direct involvement in writing the HAC bylaws, as well your badgering of a CCSD high school student … makes me seriously question your motives and whether you can be trusted to do the right thing for the students of CCSD.”
Alfons Schirduan, a nurse who led the district’s Health Advisory Committee, filed a lawsuit in May 2012 after county School Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats wrote what he described as a defamatory e-mail and sent it to him, some county school board members and district employees.
His lawsuit alleged that her statements portrayed him as untruthful and unfit for his profession, as well as untrustworthy and deceptive.
The backdrop to Schirduan filing the lawsuit was months of controversy involving the Health Advisory Committee, which chooses the district’s sexual education curriculum. Schirduan had been among the committee’s strongest supporters of an abstinence-only curriculum, and his leadership of the committee drew criticism from some.
The lawsuit payout was covered by the district’s insurance company, which ultimately made the decision to settle. The district’s deductible for any case is $75,000, and that money came out of the district’s general operating fund.
“I think it was an instance of one board member really just going off the reservation and saying something she had absolutely no right to say over some trivial issue,” said Stephen DeAntonio, Schirduan’s attorney. “(Schirduan) is a citizen volunteer, and a board member should not be cannibalizing people who are willing to step up and serve on a voluntary basis to try to help the district and community at large. That was really the shame in the thing from my standpoint.”
The settlement required both parties to agree to confidentiality and to a “neutral statement as to the resolution of the lawsuit.” Coats declined to comment on the settlement, as did Schirduan, via his attorney.
The neutral statement they agreed to read: “Alfons Schirduan and Charleston County School District agree to resolve the action (suit) and move forward with the work of the school district to better serve the interests of the students.”
DeAntonio said he didn’t think the confidentiality agreement prohibited him from commenting on the case, but the district’s attorney, John Emerson, disagreed and declined to comment.
Although the district and its insurance company are paying Schirduan, that money shouldn’t be construed as an admission of liability, according to the settlement.
“It is further understood and agreed that this settlement is a compromise of a doubtful and disputed claim,” according to the document.
The board didn’t have to approve the settlement amount, but it did sign off on the agreement. That vote happened in August, with Coats abstaining and board member Chris Collins voting against the majority. Board member Michael Miller wasn’t present. Court filings show the case was finished in September.
State law requires school districts to have Health Advisory Committees, and county school boards appoint the 13-member committees. Charleston’s committee has been a divided group in recent years, and the controversy seems to center on the district’s use of an abstinence-only curriculum from Heritage Community Services.
The county school board agreed years ago to allow schools to use those materials, despite the Health Advisory Committee’s 9-1 recommendation that it not. Schirduan still serves on the panel.
The state’s monetary cap on lawsuits such as Schirduan’s was $300,000. DeAntonio described the $95,000 settlement as fair and substantial.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.