Bering Strait School District to pay $12.6M in student sex abuse case
Young victims and their parents who testified at a court hearing in Nome Feb. 4 said the girls’ childhoods had been stolen when Bering Strait School District instructor Amos Oxereok sexually abused 13 girls over a number of years at their school in the northwest Alaska village of Wales.
The school had known, had reports from adults as well as children, but did not move quickly to protect the girls, both parents and children told the court.
Alaska State Troopers took Oxereok, then 43, into custody in September 2016 after a parent filed a complaint on child sex abuse at the Wales school. More victims came forward. Oxereok pleaded guilty to two counts of second degree Sex Abuse of a Minor Under Age 13 in Aug. 2017. He went to prison in February 2018 to begin serving a sentence of 20 years.
When children, parents or other adults reported touching going on, school officials didn’t listen, they said.
One parent told her daughter she did not have to go to court to testify. “I want to come to court,” she told her folks. “No one from school ever helped me, not one person ever helped me.”
At the hearing, BSSD Superintendent Bobby Bolen apologized to the students, their parents and the village, acknowledging that the district’s response had been slow once they found out about the abuse.
“On behalf of Bering Strait School District we are deeply sorry for everything that has happened to you. No child or no family should have to experience what you have experienced. We apologize for not being as responsive as we could have been. We are serious about training our employees to observe. We’ve heard your voices and those voices are going to cause change,” Bolen said.
Now the school district is going to pay out a big part of the $12.6 million to the children when they come of age, according to the civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Jane Does 1 through 13 against BSSD. Until then, the money will be locked, according to Jim Valcarce of Bethel, an attorney for the children, citing the agreement. “Almost all of this money will be locked up until the kids become adults,” he said. “The families wanted to dedicate it to the kids’ future.”
The district has insurance.
“I think it is a fair settlement considering the somewhat egregious failure of the school to address the issue to protect the girls,” Conner Thomas of Nome, an attorney also representing the girls, said of the amount.
However, one family settled in mid-January for $120,000.
That judgment is final, with no going back for a different amount.
The first $100,000 of the $12.6 million would go to Kawerak, Inc. Children’s Advocacy Center for work done to produce audible interviews of the children’s accounts of the abuse, which included Kawerak personnel flying out to Wales, Jim Valcarce said. The CAC’s work had been a godsend in preparing the testimony for the jury trial, he told the court. The CAC had lent utmost support to the kids and their families, both Thomas and Valcarce agreed.
Retired former Superior Court Judge Eric Sanders would allocate the remainder of the money, Thomas said, explaining that the girls would receive different amounts, as some had been abused more than others. Sanders would look at the facts in each person’s case and allot the money likely by way of an annuity to protect the children’s money until they were 18.
The agreement between the parents and the school district to settle the case took an 11-day schedule for a jury trial off the court calendar.
Meanwhile, about 35 persons filled the courtroom, including attorneys for the children and for the school district.
The Feb. 4 hearing confirmed the settlement agreement and allowed parents and children to express their feelings about what had happened to them. The setting was informal within the confines of rows of benches.
Groups of children sat along benches, others sat with families, some with a parent’s arm about them. Adults gave the children the go-ahead to sit in the jury box. At one point, a youngster went to the front of the room and retrieved a tissue for a parent weeping midway down the courtroom aisle. Some parents and children wept as they sat before the microphone recounting common threads of feeling unimportant, wanting to give up living, feeling that lost childhood made them grow up too fast, and inability to trust men even in their families.
Some said they wanted to prevent the abuse happening again, to younger sisters, cousins, other children in the community, but feared they could not.
Some parents said they had been victims; now their children were victims of sexual abuse. The relationship between teachers and community had changed from when they were growing up, some parents said. “When I found out what had happened to my [two] daughters I was at a complete loss. As a past victim of child sexual abuse, I could not believe this had happened to my daughters,” on parent read from a letter to Amos Oxereok, which she had read at his sentencing. “I was hurt that you made it so I was not able to protect my children from people like you. You made me mistrust all the men in my life. You broke trust and security. You shattered that security for my girls. Until they can accept what happened and learn to move on from this despicable act of depravity every day they will have to deal with it in their life every day. Teachers and family are to protect children, not hurt and prey on them.”
The mom of the two girls finished reading the letter penned to Oxereok and continued from her heart: “School is the heart of our community for Christmas programs, games and activities, meetings and feasts. To know that these things happened within the walls over and over, and to know that staff knew about it and tried to tell the acting and regular principal or the staff didn’t report it themselves for a very long time, is very chilling to me.”
“I feel that there is an element of racism because we were just stupid Natives to these people. It’s ironic because we have to rely on people from outside our community for these positions that are very much essential to our community,” she said. “When I was growing up, we were close to our principal and teachers, because they engaged in our community. Now, that they do not become part of our community is saddening, just ripening the way for someone to prey on [the children].”
The school locally and the district office let us down, this mom said. Their mission is to educate the children. “We give them our children for six or seven hours a day, expecting them to be OK,” she said.
Her husband sat alongside her. “It hasn’t been easy,” he said,” especially with our older daughter [who had to go away for residential treatment]. Each day she has flashbacks of what happened.” The school district should have taken immediate action, he said. His voice grew gruff. “No waiting a long time! It hurts the parents and it hurts the community. I don’t know how bad it hurt the girls. It scarred them. It’s going to be the rest of their life with them.”
Superior Court Judge Romano DiBenedetto, presiding, thanked the couple for coming forward.
“It made me feel like I was different and I wasn’t safe,” a small girl told the court. “I was scared when he touched me.”
And another mom: “She was a child, just a child. I tried to help her, but it was like trying to put a band-aid on a gunshot wound.
“We lost her. She wasn’t our baby girl anymore. Like, she thought she had to grow up. She can’t get those years back,” the woman said.
“The school took something we are never going to get back. She is afraid to go to the bathroom at school. She is afraid she will see him, although she knows that can’t be.
Valcarce introduced another mother as one of the “main plaintiffs,” who contacted him six months after BSSD terminated Oxereok as an employee, concerning what had happened to her daughter, only to find out later that all three of her daughters had been assaulted—Jane Does 1 through 3.
One dad, speaking to the court by phone, laid it out in a few words.
“I am utterly disgusted by everything that has led us to this point—the years it has taken.
All the information from the students and parents would be shared with the school board, according to Donald Austin of Seattle, member of the law firm representing the Bering Strait School District—Patterson, Buchanan, Fobes & Leitch Inc.
“We are very sorry for everything that has happened to you and your children,” Austin said.
DiBenedetto thanked everyone who had had the courage to come to court and tell the story.
“Even though you say you are not strong, you do not realize how strong you are, because everything you just did took a tremendous amount of courage,” DiBenedetto said. “I speak to you because the toughest thing about what you had to go through, is not just the assaults themselves. They are bad, and then to have them subsequently ignored, that is probably even worse—and ignored by institutions you should be able to trust—schools, governments, courts, police, judges, and I do know I have the Bering Strait School District here. I do not even know if they were the same administrators that existed back then.” [They weren’t, a voice spoke up].
“I am just a judge. I don’t have any educational expertise and I don’t pretend to, but being educators you know the bedrock of the community is its youth,” DiBenedetto said. “When you fail the youth, we fail the very precious stones of our society. I’m not going to pretend to suggest the very best policy to put in place.
“What was repeatedly clear to me was if you are going to serve a community in any respect—a school, a trooper, a police officer, a VPO, a VPSO, a court system, no amount of policies you can put into place, no institutionalization that you can muster, is going to replace one core component that has to be there, that it seems like was lost in Wales: You have to genuinely care about the community. That’s where it begins and that’s where it ends. That would be my suggestion for Bering Strait School District.
Thank you again for the time you gave me here today,” DiBenedetto concluded.