Stung by the largest damage award in its history, Gonzaga University officials weren’t talking Thursday about how they might avoid similar problems in the future. But attorneys on both sides of the lawsuit trial were.
The lawyer for GU graduate Ru Paster, who won a $1.1 million jury verdict against his alma mater Tuesday, said the university should simply follow a strict policy it already has.
“If Gonzaga had done for my client what it had for other students - follow a fair procedure in dealing with him - they wouldn’t be in the position they’re in today,” said Laurel Siddoway.
But Gonzaga was “caught between a rock and a hard place” by vague state guidelines, said Jerry Cartwright, the lawyer who defended the university.
Paster, 26, graduated in 1993. When he asked Gonzaga to send in his application for a Washington state teacher’s certificate, the school said it had a problem.
Pointing to state guidelines, Gonzaga said it needed to add a statement to his application saying it had “knowledge of potential serious behavioral problems.”
Those problems, Gonzaga told him, were based on accusations he had sexually assaulted a student two years earlier.
Though the female student told GU administrators that no rape had occurred, school officials said they were compelled to add the statement when sending his application to Olympia.
Paster, originally from Seattle, refused to allow the statement to be added to the application and filed a lawsuit instead.
A Spokane County jury decided the school’s actions - especially its refusal to tell him of the accusations or offer a chance to clear his name while he was a student - violated his civil rights.
They awarded him $815,000 in actual damages and another $300,000 for punitive damages against the university.
University officials say an appeal of that verdict is likely.
Cartwright, hired from a private firm to handle the lawsuit for GU, said GU officials didn’t get good advice from the office of the state superintendent of public instruction.
“There were differing messages from the state” on how the university should deal with the problem, Cartwright said.
Gonzaga’s problems stemmed from how it was told to interpret “knowledge of serious behavioral problems” in state guidelines, he said.
“I certainly hope (GU officials) look for ways to remove that ambiguity,” he said. Gonzaga Education School Dean Corrine McGuigan said only that she hoped to begin “a conversation with other education department administrators around the state” on how to handle teacher applications.
Siddoway said fuzzy language was not the ultimate issue.
“The law is fairly clear on what ‘knowledge’ means,” she said.
Instead of holding off, giving Paster a chance to clear his name, the university contacted Olympia, indicated it had a reliable rape victim, and then named Paster as her assailant, Siddoway said.
“For whatever reason it was, they acted differently toward my client. They did not give him the chance to deal with this issue before they gave that information to the state,” she said.
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