Herricks found not negligible in child sex abuse case

Herricks found not negligible in child sex abuse case
Herricks High School. (Photo courtesy of Herricks Public Schools)

A Nassau County jury Friday found the Herricks Union Free School District not negligible in the first Child Victims Act case against a Long Island school district to go to trial.

The plaintiff, referred to as J.G., alleged he was sexually abused in the 1980s by then-school psychologist Vincent Festa.

The jury found the school district did not act with reckless disregard in failing to protect the plaintiff from sexual abuse despite prior warnings and reports of abuse against Festa. The jury deliberated for eight hours over three days before reaching a verdict.

“We’re surprised and disappointed,” said attorney Jeffrey Herman, who represented J.G., following the verdict. “But at the end of the day, the most important thing was my client to have his day in court and to have a voice. I watched him in this trial bare his soul, and he was getting relief as the case went on.”

The plaintiff was seeking $14 million. He claimed that Festa abused him for eight years, starting when he was a student at Herricks Middle School.

Herricks Superintendent Tony Sinanis and Board of Education members issued a statement to district parents Friday: “We are pleased that justice was served fairly and impartially for all parties involved. Furthermore, we are pleased that programs and services offered to our students throughout the district will not be adversely affected by a substantial monetary judgment in this case.”

The district has paid more than $1 million to settle four of the 21 claims against the district thus far.

The district’s proposed 2024-2025 budget is up by 5.2%, representing a budget-to-budget increase from last year of $6,990,394.

Without the costs being allocated toward legal fees, the budget would only increase by 3.25% as opposed to 5.2%.

There is currently one other trial involving Herricks. The case is also being heard by a jury in Nassau County Supreme Court. Like J.G., the plaintiff is seeking monetary damages for alleged abuse by Festa, claiming the district ignored initial reports of abuse in the 1980s, thus permitting the abuse to ensue.

The 2019 Child Victims Act extended the statute of limitations for survivors of child sex abuse, granting survivors more time to press criminal charges against offenders. The act also applied to civil cases, allowing victims more time to file a claim for money damages.

Prior to the law, child sex abuse survivors had between one and five years to bring a civil lawsuit against their abuser, with that one- to five-year period starting after the victim turned 18 years old.

Following the act, which was in effect through 2021, survivors could file a claim any time before they turned 55 years old.

The case decided Friday is one of 21 lawsuits filed by former students against Herricks under the act alleging they were abused by Festa between 1973 and 1991.

Herman said the abuse his client endured could have been avoided if the district had investigated Festa and removed him from the district after a pair of students reported instances of abuse to the high school principal in 1980.

Knowledge of Festa’s alleged abuse was so rampant in the years that followed that he was widely referred to in school as “Festa the Molester,” according to Herman.

During the trial, the district conceded that Festa did sexually abuse the plaintiff, but denied that school officials permitted his actions.

“Vincent Festa must bear the full weight of responsibility for the evil things we heard [at trial],” said Melissa Jampol, the district’s lead attorney.

Festa was arrested in 1993 after he was accused of sexually abusing six teenagers in his Ronkonkoma neighborhood.

He was sentenced to five years of probation and required to register as a sex offender. He was later charged with one count of Sex Offender Registration Violation after failing to register his email addresses and internet service providers. He died in 2011 at 82.

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