The teacher's lawyer said his client didn't believe there was abuse.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Does a teacher's failure to respond to a pupil's cry for help from an alleged abusive mother constitute negligence and irresponsibility, and what monetary damages, if any, can be claimed?
Those are the questions a Mahoning County jury will consider this week as it hears a civil lawsuit in Judge Jack M. Durkin's Mahoning County Common Pleas courtroom.
Donald T. Kraynak, the father and guardian of his son Derek, now 15, filed suit against the Youngstown school district and teacher Helen Marino in 2001 alleging negligence and recklessness.
Kraynak is represented by Cleveland lawyers Joel Levin and Christopher Vlasich. Representing Marino and the school district are attorneys John Pfau and James E. Roberts.
Kraynak asserts in his suit that Marino's failure to report the abuse to proper authorities when Derek was a fourth-grader in her class at West Elementary School resulted in "innumerable instances of physical, mental and emotional abuse and humiliation by his mother and her numerous felonious boyfriends." Derek was a pupil in Marino's class from September 1999 to May 2000.
Kraynak has asked for an unspecified amount of monetary damages.
In his opening statement, Levin said Derek, then 9, kept a journal of the abuse he accused his mother of inflicting upon him during that school year.
"He tells the teacher about the abuse; she did nothing," Levin said. In fact, Levin continued, Marino didn't believe what Derek had written. Derek's deposition said he thought the teacher would report the abuse so he could live with his father.
The boy said his mother beat him with a leather belt, coat hangers, wooden spoons and a metal baton.
Levin said that under school district policy and state law, Marino had a duty to report even any suspicion of abuse to the proper authorities.
He said the jury must determine whether Marino abused the standard of care required of teachers by failing to report the alleged abuse and what is the value that can be placed on the "extra year of terror" for a child.
Levin contends Derek has suffered from depression and he has become fearful of speaking to people. He said he plans to bring in expert witnesses to discuss Derek's psychological state then and now.
Pfau told the jurors that Derek's journal in and of itself was not designed to report child abuse. Marino, who has taught gifted and special children for 20 years, designed the journal as a class creative-writing exercise.
Marino looked at the entire picture, Pfau said. His client knew what signs of abuse to look for and, in her subjective but professional judgment, none was present in Derek's case.
"He was well-groomed, smart and upbeat," Pfau said, adding that his grades steadily improved through the school year.
Kraynak and Derek's mother are divorced. During the 1999-2000 school year, Derek stayed with his mother Monday through Friday and with his father on weekends.
Pfau argued that even Kraynak and Derek's grandparents saw no signs of abuse.
Pfau said Derek's mother will testify she did use corporal punishment to discipline her son. He added Derek will testify the abuse started when he was 3.
Pfau told the jurors if they believe Derek, then the issue of abuse started well before he ever entered Marino's classroom in 1999. Therefore, Marino and the school district should not be accountable or responsible for any abuse.
Both sides could not work out a settlement before going to trial. Kraynak now has custody of his son.