HARLINGEN — A settlement has been reached in a federal case against the Harlingen school district claiming a teacher sexually harassed and romantically pursued a student.
But, only a handful of people intimately involved in the case know the monetary settlement or anything else related to the mediation.
On Friday, U.S. Magistraste Judge Ronald Morgan approved in a closed hearing the agreement between the family and HCISD.
Settlement documents have been sealed as part of the agreement and it appears no specific information will be released or accessible to the public or press.
Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District attorney Craig Wood confirmed Friday afternoon the case had been officially settled, but said he couldn’t say anything more due to the sealed nature of the case.
He even said he couldn’t answer a question about whether the district’s insurance policy would pay for the settlement.
However, the agreement itself appears to be just part of this situation.
The Valley Morning Star previously obtained the deposition transcripts of several key HCISD administrators during the discovery process for this case.
The interviews tell a story Ricardo Garcia, attorney for the father and girl, said should be concerning to anyone who has children in the school district.
“There was a coverup,” he said during the course of the case as under oath statements were being taken.
Garcia said the coverup happened in 2013, two years before he says his client was sexually assaulted by teacher Robert Amitrani.
At that time, there were allegations of inappropriate texting with a student against Amitrani that could have been substantiated and would have likely led to the teacher’s firing, Garcia said.
However, school investigators stopped and closed their investigation. They then allowed Amitrani to return to his teaching position.
“You don’t turn a blind eye to evidence,” Garcia said about the investigation.
However, Wood said like any lawsuit, there typically are two sides to the story. He would not elaborate further about anything regarding the case.
In March 2016, the father of a local high school student filed a lawsuit against HCISD on behalf of his daughter, who is said to have been repeatedly sexually assaulted on school grounds by one of the district’s teachers — Amitrani, who also was an assistant coach.
Amitrani was found dead on July 13, 2015.
Garcia contends if the district would have properly completed their investigation in 2013 into Amitrani and not been “deliberately indifferent” to the risk he posed, Garcia’s client would not have been sexually assaulted two years later.
Garcia said school officials put a stop to their investigation in 2013 regarding Amitrani’s text messages to another female student just before finding out if the phone found in Amitrani’s bag was indeed the same number where the text messages came from.
Garcia said during his discovery effort, his staff was able to determine the phone number was indeed connected to Amitrani.
In the district’s response to the lawsuit, it states, “the district was made aware of the allegations that Amitrani sent a student inappropriate text messages — an allegation that was investigated by the district, but not substantiated.”
But Garcia said the claim could have been substantiated by checking the phone.
However, the investigation was concluded before that could be done.
“They are seeking to keep this secret from the public,” Garcia said during the discovery process.
Much of the specifics discussed during depositions with school district personnel don’t focus on what allegedly happened in 2015 with Garcia’s client.
Intead, the case focused clearly on the school district’s response to the claim and investigation into Amitrani in 2013.
That was the case referenced in the complaint stating the school district conducted an “inadequate” investigation and allowed Amitrani to return to his teaching position.
“The schools are not holding the teachers accountable,” Garcia said during the discovery process.
In 2013, the complaint revolved around inappropriate texting.
Testimony tells story
According to the testimony of Dalia Moore and Debbie Finch, Harlingen High School South assistant principals, Joe Rodriguez, former HHSS principal and head of Human Resources, Rosalinda Vargas, there was a complaint and investigation made into Amitrani.
It was about him allegedly sending inappropriate text messages to a teenage female student.
A total of 48 texts were sent during a two-day span of time.
Some referenced how the student would respond if the sender were to “straight up” kiss her.
According to the girl and her phone messages, the texts started the same day Amitrani asked her to put her number in his phone and stopped as soon as Amitrani was placed on administrave leave with pay on Sept. 18.
During the approximate two-week Title IX investigation by Finch and Moore, Amitrani denied the interaction with the student. He also provided his phone and other information to investigators.
According to sworn testimony in depositions, a second phone was found in Amitrani’s classroom in a laptop bag, which also had a condom in it.
That phone matched a description by the student as the one Amitrani asked her to place her number in just before the texts started.
Testimony by Moore, Vargas and Finch indicate they all were aware of the second phone being found.
Amitrani apparently admitted the second phone was his, but that it didn’t work.
Finch, who was the lead investigator, testified that was the time she was “told to stop the investigation,” by then principal Rodriguez.
She stated in her deposition that she wanted to turn on the phone and look at it.
Acording to her responses in the deposition, Finch believed the messages were being sent by Amitrani.
She stated in her deposition when she asked why they were told to stop, Rodriguez said, “We are not in the business of breaking up families.”
Moore said in her sworn testimony she and Finch needed permission from HR to look at the phone. She agreed with Finch that they were told to stop.
“We, we were told that, yes, everything is reviewed and, and they tell us how to proceed,” Moore stated. “So they told us, if they tell us to stop, then we stopped.”
Later in the testimony, Moore agreed the investigation was not “thorough.”
Moore also stated Rodriguez was the one who told them to stop and that his statement, “We are not in the business of breaking up families” was made, but she was unsure of the context.
During his testimony, Rodriguez, who now works as an assistant principal in the Fort Bend Independent School District, said both Finch and Moore “perjured themselves” regarding his statements including that he was the one to stop the investigation.
“I had no authority, I had no oversight of the actual investigation and, you know, in all reality honestly, if I did make a comment like that, that would be odd that the Title IX coordinator at the district level, the attorneys and the superintendent would agree to such a comment made by the campus principal who is not involved in the investigation,” he stated.
Rodriguez stated in his deposition that actually he was talking about and preparing to replace Amitrani.
He also said until a conversation with Vargas, he didn’t know anything about the second phone not being looked at.
“ … if I had the authority, we probably wouldn’t be here at this time having this conversation,” Rodriguez stated in his sworn testimony. “Just at that time, I didn’t have the authority. I was the campus principal, not a part of the investigation and definitely not overseeing the investigation, you know that was at a higher level.”
Rodriguez stated ignoring the second phone made for an improper investigation.
He also agreed that likely violates school policy and doesn’t protect sudents.
Vargas testified the administration is there to support the investigators and then help them review.
“We do not conduct the investigation for them,” she stated. “We do not tell them, ‘This is what you do.’”
Vargas knew about the second phone, according to her testimony. She also stated it would have been “appropriate” to take a closer look at the phone.
She stated if the phone was “intentionally ignored” then it would not be a complete investigation.
“Don’t know what the intent was there, but it would have been a good idea for them to have looked at the phone,” Vargas said.
Back to work
After the investigation ended and findings were provided, Amitrani was cleared and returned to his duties as a science teacher on Oct. 3, 2013.
The document stating his return was sent by Vargas’s office to Rodriguez, who signed off as receiving the brief letter.