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January 19, 2004

Sex offender, Austine targeted in civil suits

From: Brattleboro Reformer, VT - Jan 19, 2004

(Please see this article: Austine counselor's conviction reversed)

Reformer Staff

BRATTLEBORO -- Civil suits filed in three states on behalf of five former students charge that staff members at the Austine School for the Deaf knew that John Rehkop was making sexual advances on students but administrators failed to take appropriate action.

The five civil suits stem from an investigation into three counts of sexual assault on a minor by Rehkop, a former behavior support specialist who worked at the Austine School. In 2001, a former student told her therapist at the Learning Center for Deaf Children in Framingham, Mass., that Rehkop forced her to perform sex acts on him three times between the spring and fall of 1999.

Last week, a Windham District Court jury found Rehkop guilty of three counts of sexual assault, which is punishable by up to 60 years in prison and a fine of up to $60,000. Judge John P. Wesley set bail for Rehkop at $20,000 or surety. Rehkop, who now lives in Maryland, posted bail less than a day after being convicted. He is currently awaiting sentencing.

Official negligence?

Boston attorney Timothy P. Van Dyck represents five former Austine students who allege Rehkop made sexually explicit comments to them and, in some cases, committed sexual assault. Van Dyck said all five suits against the Austine School allege that certain staff members were aware of Rekhop's indiscretions but did nothing to prevent them.

"This school was well aware that Rehkop was a bad apple -- well before he had contact with the victim -- and failed to take appropriate action against him," Van Dyck said.

Van Dyck said Rehkop is named in all five suits, which demand monetary relief ranging between $1 million and $5 million from the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, doing business as the Austine School. One suit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Concord, N.H., two in the U.S. District Court in Burlington, and one in the Windham Superior Court in Newfane. All of the cases were filed between October and December 2002.

Van Dyck said the fifth suit is under appeal in the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Boston, after the district court ruled there was no indication that Austine staff members knew about Rekhop's indiscretions with the victim, who is the same student who pressed criminal charges against him in 2001.

But in January 2003, U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Gail Dein ordered the Austine School to pay $8,000 to the plaintiff, because the defense failed to file appropriate discovery, including student and staff complaints about Rehkop.

"While the court recognizes that on occasion documents are missed through inadvertence and mistake, the repeated failure of Austine to provide timely and complete information cannot be tolerated without penalty," Dein stated in her order.

Dein also noted that a deposition taken from a staff member in December 2002 listed an instance where a student complained about being improperly touched by a school staff member, who subsequently resigned.

"Given the repeated discovery disputes and the lengthy court hearings on discovery, it is almost inconceivable that new complaints of alleged sexual abuse by Austine staff are being identified for the first time at this late date," Dein stated.

Prior conviction

During his investigation, Van Dyck said, he uncovered further evidence that suggests at least some of the Austine staff knew about Rekhop's indiscretions with students.

"At least one other student had made very serious complaints against Rehkop," he said. "Essentially, they conducted a sham investigation."

According to Van Dyck, the school received reports about Rekhop's behavior dating back to May 1997. Various incidents -- including sexual assault, attempted assault and sexual harassment -- were alleged to have occurred between 1997 and 1999, when Rehkop was finally fired, he said.

Van Dyck said one of his clients has since filed a criminal complaint against Rehkop for sexual assaults that allegedly occurred prior to the incidents for which he was convicted. In late December, he said, police interviewed the alleged victim. Brattleboro Police Detective Eugene Wrinn was unable to comment about any active investigations, but said no additional charges had been filed against Rehkop.

Between 1997 and 2000, the alleged victim -- who is deaf and has a learning disability -- attended the Austine School, where she boarded during the weekdays like most of the school's students.

"I was basically putting my trust in the school to keep my daughter safe," said her mother, who asked that her name be withheld.

She said Austine School administrators didn't inform her about a domestic assault charge against Rehkop before assigning him as her daughter's aide. In June 1997, Rehkop was charged with thee counts of domestic assault against a former girlfriend. According to Windham District Court documents, Rehkop entered into a plea bargain with the state's attorney and received a suspended sentence of up to 12 months, which he successfully completed in November of 1998.

"They never told us anything of his background," the mother said. "Had we known, we would have never allowed him to be our daughter's one-to-one aide."

Question of timing

Attorney Christopher D. Roy of Downs Rachlin Martin, a law firm that advises the Austine School, said school officials were unaware of Rekhop's actions or that he was a threat to students. Once Rekhop's actions came to the attention of the Austine staff, he was suspended and ultimately fired.

"There was really nothing that the school could have done," Roy said. "None of these students ever said anything about Rehkop to the (staff) before the (1999) incident."

Roy said the school had no indication that Rehkop was a threat to students or that he was having sexual relations with them prior to the fall of 1999. During this time, the school didn't receive any substantiated claims of abuse against Rehkop, according to Roy, so it cannot be held accountable for his actions.

Roy said the civil cases are scheduled to go to trial in the spring, unless a settlement is reached. Discussions are continuing between the plaintiff and the defendant in the suit filed in New Hampshire, he said.

"There is a pending motion for summary judgment so that it won't go to trial," he said.

Roy said the Burlington civil case that lists Rehkop as a one-on-one aide was filed more than a year before the family contacted police in Brattleboro. Prior to the initial allegations in 2001, the family didn't have any problems with Rehkop and hadn't reported any incidents to the school or police.

"The school was never informed and the parents never complained at the time," he said. "They liked him and the work he did with their daughter."

In another instance, Roy said one of the plaintiffs who filed a civil case against the school had told Austine staff members that Rehkop had made sexual comments to her. Rehkop was suspended pending the investigation, he said, but once the Austine staff investigated the girl's allegations, she retracted her story. The girl is one of the five who have filed civil suits against the school.

Roy also noted that none of the civil cases was filed until well after the first criminal investigation was under way. It took nearly a year for one of the plaintiffs in the Burlington civil suit to press criminal charges, he said.

"The criminal complaint wasn't followed until after the civil action well after the civil complaint was filed in federal district court," Roy said.

Administrators at the Austine School declined comment.

@ 2004 Brattleboro Reformer