- W. Keith Wyatt, representing the LAUSD
The LAUSD’s Office of the General Counsel (GC) employs a legal staff whose mission is to “provide effective and proactive legal advice and quality representation while creating an ethical environment in support of a high quality learning environment for all students.” Unfortunately, this department does not seem to be adequately staffed as they also hire outside law firms to handle litigation against the District. These outside firms do not seem to be held to the same ethical standards as described in the GC’s mission statement.
W. Keith Wyatt had “represented the District for 27 years” when he “advanced the argument that an 8th grader who has oral, vaginal, and anal sex with a teacher learns maturity from the experience and is unlikely to ever need counseling as a result” and that “minors can consent to sex with adults” so the court should “impose responsibility on minor students for their own sexual abuse by teachers.” While the GC David Holmquist did not intervene during the course of the trial or the appeal, he could not ignore the outcry after the lawyer stated in a radio interview that “it was a more dangerous decision for a 14-year-old to cross a street in traffic than to have sex with her middle-school teacher.” In November 2014, Wyatt was “barred from any further legal work with the district” - at least until things quieted down.
By February 2015, Wyatt was already working on cases again for the LAUSD. The District stated that they believed the three month long “suspension was sufficient to drive home our concerns about statements he made.” “Holmquist cited 28 years of ‘outstanding legal work’ as the justification” for the lawyer’s return. However, once the rehiring became public, the GC had to reverse course and fire Wyatt, not because of his legal tactics but because “the attention surrounding Mr. Wyatt’s out-of-court statements has made it increasingly difficult for us to do the work that we do, and to properly represent the District.” Holmquist also left open the possibility of Wyatt returning in the future stating only that “Wyatt himself will not receive any district work for the foreseeable future.” (emphasis mine)
The District’s continued litigation with parents of children with special needs is also being handled by an outside law firm. Contrary to the GC’s stated mission of fostering a “high quality learning environment for all students” (emphasis mine), Littler Mendelson PC has pushed a legal argument that relies on the falsehood that the “appellants oppose the Congressional requirement of LRE [Least Restrictive Environment] and mainstreaming.” In fact, these parents want the LAUSD to recognize that contrary to the myth that “Congress requires mainstreaming”, the law requires that LRE should only apply “to the maximum extent appropriate.” (emphasis mine) Even if they are in a small minority, the children represented by these parents cannot receive an appropriate education in a general education environment and, therefore, deserve the option of an appropriately designed and staffed special education center.
In addition to their attempts to mislead the court about the facts of the case, this law firm also used other unethical legal maneuverings. They complained that the “appellants sought to intervene at the eleventh hour…[because] the underlying class action lawsuit was filed in 1993-more than twenty years ago”, ignoring the fact that these parents had no way of knowing that they would be affected at that time as their children were not even part of the system - or even born at that time. The firm also seemed to argue against the needs of the affected students when it stated that “intervention would ‘particularly prejudice the LAUSD by requiring the LAUSD to expend further resources in resettling the status quo’”. In other words, it did not matter if reversing course would be the best thing to do for the students, the District was only interested in saving money.
These types of legal maneuvering continue in the case of Eric Ortiz, a 16-year-old boy who was on the autism spectrum. Even though Ortiz’s Individualized Education Program [IEP] specified that he have “one-on-one supervision” at all times, the student drowned on a school field trip. According to his sister, “he was pulled from the pool with his clothes and shoes on”. His family has sued the District and others alleging “negligence, breach of duty and wrongful death.” The outside law firm of Vanderford & Ruiz is representing the District.
While the LAUSD has an obligation to protect its stakeholders and defend itself against claims for which it thinks that it has a defense, it also has a moral duty to make sure that incidents are fully investigated to provide justice and ensure that appropriate corrective action is taken. Instead, the firm representing the District in this case has moved the proceedings out of Los Angeles County which will provide a hardship on the Ortiz family and make it difficult for witnesses, including students at Garfield High School to appear in court. Since the county has filed a cross-complaint in the case, the District asserted that the “LAUSD would suffer bias if the case were tried in the County of Los Angeles as jury members could reason an unfavorable outcome for the County as being against their own economic interests.” Left unexplained was why the jurors would not display the same loyalty towards the LAUSD.
Whether it is District lawyers or outside law firms filing the paperwork with the court, they should still represent the values of the stakeholders. GC Holmquist should be the one ensuring that the District is represented ethically, but does not seem up to the task. After all, no district employee was held accountable for Wyatt’s actions and Holmquist will not even guarantee that Wyatt will never work for the District again. In the case of the parents of students with moderate to severe disabilities, he kept the School Board from discussing the issue publicly. Ultimately, the elected School Board signs off on every one of the contracts with these law firms and also Holmquist’s employment contact. It is, therefore, time for them to step up and address this problem.