The family of nonverbal autistic twins was awarded $45 million in damages after a jury found the twin boys were physically abused at their California school.
The former students of Juan Cabrillo Elementary School in Malibu were said to have undergone “corporal punishment including physical restraint, physical abuse and intentional battery” in 2017, when they were in second grade.
The lawsuit, brought by Charles and Nadine Wong, named as defendants Galit Gottlieb, who was an aide at the school, and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District as well as other school administrators.
Court documents say a bus driver for the district witnessed Gottlieb “physically restrain the boys and punish them by putting hand sanitizer on their cuts,” according to a U.S. News report. Another employee also later reported abuse to supervisors, according to a local news station ABC7.
“A teacher at the school made a report of child abuse,” said Omar Qureshi, attorney for the family. “That got the sheriffs sent over to the Wongs’ house to check up on the boys, and that’s where the family learned that there was abuse in the classroom.”
The boys are autistic and nonverbal, and had “significant challenges with respect to communication, behavior and adaptive skills as a result of their diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder,” according to the lawsuit. Despite the boys’ inability to report the abuse, their parents noticed signs that something had changed, including the twins’ uncharacteristically aggressive behavior.
“As a parent, you know something is wrong when your child is treating everyone different,” the boys’ mother told ABC7. “You know yourself, and you look at your child and you say, ‘What has happened to you?’ But they can’t tell us.”
The lawsuit alleges that school officials failed to act even after receiving notice of abuse.
“District administrators failed the twins by allowing them to be abused for months despite clear warnings that they were being harmed,” David W. German, another member of the Wongs’ legal team, said in a statement.
“Even now, they refuse to acknowledge the extent of the harm their employee caused,” the statement continues. “Fortunately, the jury saw through their continued attempt to cover up what occurred.”
Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent Ben Drati said in a statement the district believes the verdict “was not justified by the evidence,” and will seek an independent review, despite agreeing “that student well-being must always be a priority.”
An email to the school district inquiring whether alleged abuser Galit Gottlieb is still employed was not immediately answered.
The twins, now 12, are currently enrolled in an autism program at a private school.