Freeburg School District 70 to pay more than $5.6M to settle sex abuse cases

News-DemocratFebruary 22, 2014 

Four former elementary school students alleged they were sexually abused by former Freeburg School District 70 Superintendent Robin Hawkins and the district knew but did nothing to stop it.

The four cases settled last year for payments worth more than $5.6 million.

The Belleville News-Democrat obtained a copy of the four settlement agreements under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Although all of the settlement agreements contain a confidentiality clause that bars the release of the information, Freeburg School District 70 attorney Mike Wagner said the district was compelled to release the documents under FOIA.

In the complaint, Mike Weilmuenster, who represented three of the victims, alleged that school personnel knew for decades about the claims of misconduct and failed to properly supervise Hawkins to prevent the abuse. Hawkins killed himself in 2009.

"They had knowledge that he was dangerous around minor children and failed to take the appropriate measure to ensure the safety of their students," Weilmuenster said.

As part of the settlement, Wagner, the school district's lawyer, said the district personnel have admitted no fault.

* The first case, which was filed in 2010, settled for a lump sum payment of $1.6 million and $1,000 monthly payments for 30 years, plus annual payments of $50,000 in 2014, $25,000 in 2017, $50,000 in 2022, 2027 and 2032, ending with a $60,000 payment in 2037.

* The second case was filed in 2012. The settlement includes a lump sum payment of $2,078,000, plus $2,000 per month payments for 40 years, increasing 3 percent annually, with the last payment in 2056.

* The third lawsuit was filed in 2012. The settlement was for a single payment of $124,0000.

* There was no lawsuit filed in the fourth case. It settled for a lump sum payment of $200,000.

The plaintiffs' identities remain protected by a federal judge's order, but the settlement amount wasn't listed in the court documents because of a confidentiality clause.

"Confidentiality clauses are standard operating procedure in these kinds of cases," said Mary Jo McGrath, a California attorney and expert in sexual abuse cases involving schools. "The district may not want people to know how deep their pockets are."

Weilmuenster cannot discuss the settlement because he said he is still bound by the confidentiality clause. Wagner said the settlement was within the limits of the insurance coverage and would not expose taxpayers to additional liability.

The allegations dated back to the early 1980s. In 1991, a male Carl L. Barton Elementary School student alleged Hawkins took him to the boy's locker room, wrapped an elastic bandage around his hands and eyes, then fondled him and performed oral sex on him, according to a Freeburg police report. Hawkins was not charged in the case.

In 2009, another male student alleged sexual abuse by Hawkins. The Illinois State Police were called. During the investigation, Hawkins body was found sitting in a 1964 Mustang convertible in a barn on his property near Belleville. The cause of his death was listed as suicide by carbon monoxide asphyxiation.

After Hawkins' death, some Freeburg residents rallied behind Hawkins, Weilmuenster said, vilifying the victim. That's when other victims came forward.

That's not uncommon, said McGrath, who also trains schools on how to avoid sex abuse litigation.

"It's not unusual for people to bury (these kinds of allegations) and protect the adults," McGrath said. "These are professional people with reputations, families and are respected in the community. The perpetrators know this and play that advantage. They also pick victims because they are in some way marginalized. They are poor or they come from single-parent families or they have behavioral issues. They pick these kinds of victims because they are easy to discredit."

In federal lawsuits of these kinds, McGrath said plaintiffs have to prove that the school knew about the abuse and failed to act.

"It's a pretty high standard," McGrath said. "To settle a case like this, it must have meant that the claims were, at the least, substantive."

The four cases settlements ended cases connected with Hawkins, Wagner said.

"To my knowledge, that's true," Wagner said.

The Illinois State Police investigation, obtained by the News-Democrat under the Freedom of Information Act, stated there were five possible victims, including a minor who was interviewed after Hawkins' suicide. The boy told police that Hawkins promised him a car and college tuition. The boy's father said Hawkins gave the boy money, took him to dinner and bought him $80 earrings.

It isn't clear whether that child was a plaintiff in any of the lawsuits.

Weilmuenster also represented victims of sexual abuse cases filed against the Catholic Diocese of Belleville in several abuse cases. A former altar boy received a $1.2 million settlement after he alleged he was molested by his parish priest. Weilmuenster also received a $5 million verdict for James Wisniewski, who claimed the diocese covered up sex abuse by the Rev. Raymond Kownacki. Despite these large awards, deciding to be part of sexual abuse lawsuit is a tough decision, Weilmuenster said.

"It's a difficult thing to do," Weilmuenster said. "These victims have to put themselves out there and relive all of that over again."

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.