KENMORE, N.Y. (WIVB) — School boards across the state are bracing for what one official is calling “an insurance nightmare,” in the wake of Ken-Ton schools reaching a huge child abuse settlement, agreeing to pay over $17 million to 35 former students.
Keep in mind, all of the former students are now adults, and their claims of abuse go back as far as 50 years ago, due to provisions of the state’s Child Victims Act (CVA). Kenmore-Tonawanda school officials decided to settle because of the potential cost if they didn’t — and they have no insurance to cover it.
All 35 lawsuits were aimed at one man: Arthur Werner, a 5th grade teacher at Herbert Hoover Elementary, who was accused of groping and molesting boys — sometimes right out in the open. In a previous interview, attorney Chris O’Brien, who represents most of the plaintiffs, detailed the accusations to News 4.
“They would be called to the front of the room to be disciplined, or the class would be given an assignment and one of them would be called to the front of the room and he would put that boy on his lap.”
An attorney for the state’s school boards told us, schools across New York are ill-equipped to cover these lawsuits — ironic, since very few school officials from those times are still around.
“About 90% of the districts that have been involved do not have insurance for these,” attorney Jay Worona said. “Either because these claims were not part of the policy at that time, or worse yet, what we are seeing, is that those insurance companies that existed way back then don’t exist anymore.”
Ken-Ton officials released a statement to News 4, saying they hired an insurance specialist, who was unable to identify any available insurance coverage for these lawsuits. As a result, the District is solely responsible for covering the cost of these 35 trials, as well as any settlement or jury award.
Further, an investigation revealed former administrators unanimously testified that they did not have any knowledge of misconduct by Arthur Werner, and if they had known, they would have taken immediate action against it.
So how do schools pay for these lawsuits?
“None of those things would set well with taxpayers,” Worona said. “They don’t want to pay more in their tax dollars, but they certainly do not want to have an education system that does not serve children as well.”
Worona told News 4, school officials across New York have been appealing to state lawmakers — even former Governor Cuomo — to set up a state fund to help districts defray part of the cost of these lawsuits. But so far, they are getting little traction.
Al Vaughters is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 1994. See more of his work here. To submit a Call 4 Action, click here.