The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments today on whether a former New London student can sue the school district for emotional problems cause by the sexual abuse of a teacher and track coach. The school district’s lawyer Steve Ort argues the case brought by the student in connection with the abuse by former teacher Gina Sisk was filed too late.
The student known as Jane Doe, did not file her case until after learning of another case involving Sisk. Ort says the student was 18 at the time of the last abuse, and knew the relationship with Sisk was wrong. “Miss Doe does not claim that she didn’t discovered she was injured. She didn’t make that claim. She says ‘I didn’t know that this injury caused this problem.’ But even in her pleadings, she says, I left New London because of this abusive relationship,” Ort says.
Jane Doe’s attorney, Roxanne Conlin, says the statute of limitations didn’t begin to run until 2011 when her client discovered her mental problems were directly related to six years of sexual abuse by Sisk. “The victim, Jane Doe, always knew that there had been sex between her and Gina Sisk,” Conlin says. “What she did not know is that caused her harm. And that is what she must know. She has to know she has a cause of action.”
Conlin says Jane Doe was still a child at the time and didn’t comprehend the overall damage done by the abuse. “She knew that there was sex. She knew certainly, that the teacher would be in a lot of trouble if the teacher was discovered. I’m assuming that she though this was an affair, and the fact that it caused her harm was simply unknown to her,” Conlin says.
Ort says he does not intend to blame Doe for the abuse, but says she should have reported what was going on at the time. “Certainly again, going to the criminal code, all persons are presumed to know the law. That’s in the criminal code,” Ort says. “So is it unfair to that 18-year-old Jane Doe didn’t know that this was inappropriate. In her own pleadings she says she threatened to disclose this. And counsel has acknowledged that she new that Sisk would be in trouble if this was disclosed.”
Ort was asked if the case is similar to someone who was in a car accident and settles and then several years later goes back and says the damage was worse than they thought. He says it is similar. “The fact is, the discovery rule has never allowed you to go back after the fact and say ‘I was actually hurt more than I thought I was,” Ort says.
Civil lawsuits involving Sisk and sexual abuse of students in the New London and Keokuk districts have been settled out of court. The 46-year-old Sisk left the New London School District in 2006 and took a job teaching middle school and coaching track in Keokuk. She was put on paid administrative leave from the Keokuk School District two weeks after the first lawsuit was filed in March 2012. She resigned in June 2013.
The Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling on the case could take a couple of weeks.