Federal jury decides former Darien district employee abused special education student

The former aide will appeal the verdict.

The attorneys for John Doe have issued a response to comments from the special education aide and the district attorneys. Here is the response in its entirety:

As plaintiffs’ lead trial counsel, it is frustrating and disappointing that the Times, apparently without any fact-checking, would woodenly print (in extra large bold type no less) defendants’ counsel’s misrepresentations as to what ostensibly happened at the trial and how the jury decided that Zachary Hasak, the nephew of Darien’s then special education director Robin Pavia, sexually abused then 12 year old special education student John Doe. Everyone may be entitled to their own opinion but no one is entitled to their own facts. The least that you can and should do is print this letter at the same time so that your readers are not hoodwinked by defendants’ demonstrably false misstatements.

First, it is a gross misstatement to say that “it is clear that they [the jury] expressly found that Mr. Hasak never touched John Doe.” Similarly, there was no “finding” by the jury that there “was a single act of exposure.” There simply were no such express findings by the jury. And, to be clear, there was no testimony of any witness that any of this occurred in a bathroom. Rather, there was overwhelming evidence that Hasak had and exercised the discretion to take John Doe to a secluded classroom and to stay there with John Doe as long as he liked.

Noticeably absent from defendants’ canned misstatements is there any mention of the videotaped interview of John Doe conducted by the Lower Fairfield County Sexual Assault Response Team. The SART interview was compelling evidence that figured prominently in the jury’s deliberations. At no time did the SART team reverse its consensus that John Doe was credible.

The district court judge, like so many other courts before her (including the U.S. Supreme Court) disallowed the results of “lie detector tests” because they are considered inherently unreliable. Moreover, here, one of the two lie detector tests was a private lie detector test that Hasak or his representatives bought and paid for. The other “test” asked only a handful of questions. Most significantly, defendants make absolutely no mention of the fact that Hasak has screen credits for acting in a supporting role in the 1998 film “Stepmom,” starring Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon. Actors are proficient in pretending to be someone else and getting the public to believe it—just the kind of person with the skill sets to get through a private or cursory lie detector test. At the trial, the jury was presented with compelling evidence in the record from which they were entitled to conclude that Hasak lied repeatedly during the trial and even during his sworn deposition.

Hasak was not “cleared” by the Darien Police. To the contrary, the Darien Police prepared an arrest warrant but unfortunately, the Stamford prosecutor refused to sign the arrest warrant.

John Doe’s parents liked and had confidence in Hasak’s work until one morning in October, 2009, when John Doe told his parents what Mr. Hasak had done. Never before and never since has John Doe leveled an accusation of sexual abuse at anyone else. Nor has John Doe ever recanted. It does not reflect badly on the Does that they liked and trusted Hasak before October, 2009. The same can be said of the public’s trust and confidence in Bill Cosby and the Penn State football program. Once, however, there are credible revelations of sexual abuse, all bets are off. It also is a complete falsehood that I ever “requested” ANY sum of money during my summation, let alone the sum of $100,000,000. The jury awarded a total of $100,000.

Defendants know, however, that I made clear to the jury both during my opening and during my summation that John Doe’s parents brought this action for a very important principle that transcends mere money—validating the worth of John Doe’s words so that his allegations of sexual abuse would be treated the same as if John Doe did not have a disability. It is insane that John Doe’s parents literally had to bring a federal case to make this important point.

Finally, it is shameful that defendants would communicate that “the takeaway from the verdict may be that others may be dissuaded from taking on the responsibility of caring for children with special needs.” Let it suffice to say that sexual abusers need not apply. We do hope, however, that the Darien board of education implements remedial measures to prevent this kind of abuse from reoccurring.

Sincerely

Gary S. Mayerson

 

 

After a two-week trial and two days of deliberations, a federal jury has returned a verdict finding that a special education aide employed by the Darien Board of Education sexually abused a 12-year-old Darien student with Down Syndrome in a Darien elementary school. The special education aide is Zachary Hasak, the nephew of Darien’s then Director of Special Education, Robin Pavia.

The child’s parents initially claimed Hasak sexually assaulted their son at Tokeneke School. The lawsuit alleged that Hasak was hired during Pavia’s tenure as a paraprofessional to assist the boy, who is named John Doe in the suit. The suit further claimed originally that Hasak was not a certified teacher or special ed teacher, but the schools argued he did not teach John.

John told his teacher, Melissa Bellino, that Hasak had exposed himself while they were alone, but Bellino told him not to say anything and that he would get into trouble, the suit claims. Eventually John told his parents, who reported the incident to then Assistant Superintendent Steve Falcone. Falcone then informed the Department of Children and Families, or DCF, and also had school employees interview John.

The employees conducting the interview told John’s parents they believed his story of abuse, the suit stated. Hasak was then placed on paid administrative leave.

John’s parents also told Darien Police about the incident, who referred it to the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut, which is the protocol for handling allegations of sexual abuse of a per son with disabilities. The Center also confirmed the allegations to be true, the suit states, as did DCF’s investigation.

Two months later, however, Center reversed its findings because Hasak passed a lie detector test. Five months later, Hasak was back work in Darien.

In 2013, the district was found to have violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by creating a program designed to restrict, reduce and remove educational services to children with disabilities to save money, according to a two-part state investigation and a $196,000 independent probe.

Central to the evidence presented to the jury was a  videotaped interview of the student conducted at the time by the Lower Fairfield County Sexual Assault Response Team, or SART.

Dr. Steven Falcone, Darien’s Assistant Superintendent at the time, admitted at the trial that the videotaped SART interview of the student’s account was not viewed or considered as part of the school district’s internal investigation before Hasak was reinstated by the Darien schools.
The jury returned a unanimous “yes” verdict on the question of whether Hasak had sexually abused John Doe.

John Doe’s family hailed the jury’s verdict as an advancement of the rights of people with disabilities, demonstrating that when a child with a disability alleges they were sexually abused, their words must be given the same weight and consideration as that of an allegation made by a child without a disability.

John Doe and his parents were represented by Gary S. Mayerson, Maria C. McGinley and Jacqueline DeVore of Mayerson and Associates, a NYC law firm that specializes in representing students with developmental disabilities.

Gary Mayerson, the firm’s founder and lead attorney at the trial said: “The jury’s courageous verdict vindicated the value of John Doe’s words.”

Hasak’s attorneys, John Blazi and Bethany Karas, said Hasak “is shocked and saddened that the jury came back with a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs.”

Below is their full statement:

It is clear that they expressly found that Mr. Hasak never touched John Doe.  It appears from notes that they sent out during deliberations that they were confused about plaintiffs’ allegation of negligence and may have found for the plaintiffs based upon testimony from some witnesses that John Doe may have inadvertently seen Mr. Hasak in the bathroom.  The fact that the jury found no willful, wanton conduct and awarded no punitive damages, which are designed to punish wrongful conduct, clearly signaled that the jury found no intentional wrong-doing on the part of Mr. Hasak.  Mr. Hasak did not abuse John Doe,” they said.

Due to pretrial evidentiary rulings, the jury never heard that Mr. Hasak passed two lie detector tests, and was cleared by Darien Police and DCF of any wrong-doing after their review of a forensic interview of John Doe about the statements he allegedly made to his parents that triggered their six-year long legal battle.  What makes the verdict even more confusing is that the two educational consultants hired by the School District, all members of its special education team and John Doe’s parents heaped praise upon Mr. Hasak for his work with John Doe.  The unfortunate take away from the verdict may be that others may be dissuaded from taking on the responsibility of caring for children with special needs who may mis-perceive or mis-report about things they experience in their environment. The plaintiffs’ recovery of $10,000.00 for future “pain and suffering” is a far cry from the $100,000.000.00 that plaintiffs’counsel argued for during closing argument and clearly indicates that the jury was underwhelmed by the evidence and returned a compromise verdict.  Mr. Hasak did nothing but provide the best possible care for John Doe.  He will take an immediate appeal.”

The school district and Board of Education declined comment. Attorney Catherine Nietzl released the following statement on their behalf and on behalf of the remaining two district employees she represents, Melissa Bellino and Laura Conte:

The District is pleased to have the last remaining charges against it rejected by the jury.  Last year, the plaintiffs voluntarily withdrew the claims against three of the Darien Board of Education defendants when it was apparent there was no evidence to support the claims and the Court dismissed almost all of the remaining claims against the District and its employees earlier this year.

The District is happy for its former special education teacher and administrator who were completely exonerated by the verdict.  The jury inexplicably found one act of exposure, by the District’s former paraprofessional, while at same time rejecting all claims about other acts of sexual abuse which the plaintiffs vigorously pursued.  The jury rejected any claim of willful or wanton conduct, and rejected awarding punitive damages.

Due to civil rules of evidence, the jury was not permitted to hear that the paraprofessional was never arrested, he passed two lie detector tests, and no substantiation of the claims was found by the Department of Children and Families.

The fact that the award was only $10,000 for “pain and suffering” when the plaintiffs demand prior to trial was almost a half a million dollars and their counsel requested an award of $100,000,000 at trial, was a resounding validation of the defendants’ decision to proceed to trial.  It is the District’s understanding that the paraprofessional will be appealing the verdict.

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  • Porter Gladstone

    Wow the headline is very misleading. Susan Schultz I think has a history of overstating things.

    • seriously?

      darien news online has a very different story with a different $ damages. Possible it is understated? Just saying…

      • Porter Gladstone

        I said the headline is.

  • seriously?

    the darien news online has two articles regarding this that do a better job explaining the entire situation

    http://www.dariennewsonline.com/news/article/Ex-Tokeneke-School-aide-found-guilty-of-sex-abuse-6439762.php

  • specialeducator27

    As a special educator, this whole thing makes me sick and
    really makes me rethink my career; a career that I love and believe that I’m
    really making a difference with. Zach
    Hasak was the best thing to ever happen to this child, and to think that this
    could happen to him makes me physically ill. Who knows what the reasoning was
    behind this whole mess, but I really hope that good still does exist in this
    world.

    • Porter Gladstone

      Parent’s of children with Down’s syndrome have a challenging life.

      And part of that challenge, no doubt is the understanding that their children may not have the same defense mechanisms. That being said, I wonder why in a he said, he said case, where one party has 2 lie detector tests to help corroborate his claim , that a jury would find someone guilty.

      Maybe in a liberal state of Connecticut when you have deep pockets in a town of Darien, vs a child with a disability, people just feel the siding with the child has less downside.

      • specialeducator27

        “Due to pretrial evidentiary rulings, the jury never heard that Mr. Hasak passed two lie detector tests”

        • Porter Gladstone

          ah yeah, true

        • Voice of Reason

          I could not be more disgusted in the judicial system. Are there any facts WHATSOEVER here?? Ive known the person my whole life and any kid would be lucky to have him watching over them. Hard to imagine the system always wants to make examples of people without considering the damage they are doing. Embarassed to be a Stamford native.

      • Voice of Reason

        100% correct.

  • l. brown

    are u kidding??? Whos the actor here? I think Mr Mayerson wins that award. Did u ever see the movie Stepmom? ZH was in this 2 hour movie for @ 30sec. He went as an extra…… There were alot of actors in court that day, Mr. H was not one of them. This family should be ashamed of themselves. Yes a voice was heard. But it wasn’t their 12yr old child.’s It was the parents. And i agree, steps should be taken to protect the people who work with children every day, so a false claim cannot be made so easily and a sympathy verdict rendered in civil court.

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