A jury today ordered Dorchester District 2 to pay former vice principal Mary Rita Watson $1 million for improperly demoting her following 2009 accusations that she failed to report alleged abuse of autistic students by a teacher's assistant.
Under the state's tort laws, the amount the district will actually have to pay out is capped at $300,000, said Gregg Meyers, Watson's attorney.
Meyers said Watson, who still works as a teacher for the district, wept when the jury returned its verdict, thankful that they had taken her story to heart.
"She was very appreciative," he said. "She now has recovered part of what she lost financially when they did this to her."
District 2 Superintendent Joe Pye said he did not attend the trial and had not spoken to the district's lawyer, Alice Paylor, so he could not comment on the case.
The suit stemmed from actions taken in 2009, when Dorchester County sheriff's deputies launched an investigation into alleged abuse in the special education department at Knightsville Elementary School. The allegations concerned staff holding hands over a child's mouth and nose, dragging a child by the hair and striking one on the head, authorities said.
A special education teacher and her assistant were charged with multiple counts of unlawful conduct toward children. Watson and her principal were charged with failing to report the abuse.
The charges against Watson were later dismissed, Meyers said. Court records also do not indicate any convictions against the other three women in the case.
Another teacher's aide who made the initial allegations of abuse shared only a small fraction of her account with Watson, who found no evidence to support the claim, Meyers said. That aide then gave a much more detailed account to her therapist, who alerted authorities, he said.
Suspicion fell on Watson, and they tried to hold her accountable for withholding information she never had to begin with, Meyers said.
She was demoted to a 5th grade teacher's position, losing out on pay while being forced to endure hard questions from students who had Googled her name and learned of the allegations against her, Meyers said.
She sued the district, alleging that officials there had acted improperly in going after her while they collaborated with the sheriff's office investigation, Meyers said. The suit alleged that this was done in part to mollify a Family Court judge who had a child at the school and another judge who contacted school officials on her friend's behalf, he said.
The suit did not name the judges, and Meyers declined to divulge their identities.
Meyers said the district could have avoided a large pay-out if they had agreed to reinstate her before the suit went to court.
"They could have resolved this case for very little money if they were willing to do that, but they weren't," he said.
Brenda Rindge contributed to this story. Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.