A jury found Herricks school district not negligent in a Child Victims Act case involving a high school graduate who alleged he was sexually abused by a school psychologist.  Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin, Jeff Bachner

This story was reported by Jim Baumbach, Robert Brodsky and Grant Parpan. It was written by Brodsky and Parpan.

A Nassau County jury Friday found the Herricks Union Free School District was not negligent in a Child Victims Act case involving a high school graduate who alleged he was sexually abused by a school psychologist in the late 1980s.

In a decision that appeared to surprise many in the Mineola courtroom, the jury of five women and one man found the district did not act with reckless disregard in failing to protect the plaintiff, identified in court records as J.G., from Vincent Festa, despite prior warnings and reports of the psychologist sexually abusing other students at the school in the prior decade.

The jury deliberated for eight hours over three days before reaching its verdict.

Plaintiff attorney Jeffrey Herman of Manhattan had sought $14 million in damages for his client.

“We're surprised and disappointed,” Herman said 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. So that's what this is about. We can't control what the jury does with the case.”

Timothy Martin, of Lynbrook, one of  the jurors who voted not to hold the district legally responsible, said while he was sympathetic to the victim, there was not enough evidence to prove Herricks was aware of Festa's conduct and failed to take action.

“They didn't have enough concrete evidence to prove that they were negligent,” Martin told Newsday. “We were looking for documentation. There was no documentation. There were no complaints. And the one witness they did have, his account was not concrete.”

In a statement to district parents Friday, Herricks Superintendent Tony Sinanis and board of education members said, “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 case, heard before acting Justice Felice Muraca in  state Supreme Court, is one of 21 claims filed under the CVA accusing Herricks High School administrators of ignoring reports that Festa abused students during his two-decade career in the district. It was the first CVA case to go to trial on Long Island.

The plaintiff alleged Festa established a relationship with him while he was a middle school student and later provided him with pornography and sexually abused him behind a closed door in his office on four occasions in ninth and 10th grades.

“He stole his first sexual experience from him,” Herman told the jury during closing arguments Wednesday.

Herman outlined at least 10 instances when a student, parent or high school staff member reported alleged abuse by Festa in the decade before the plaintiff attended the school. Herman said those “reports and warnings” should have caused the district to “stop, investigate and prevent” the abuse by the psychologist.

While the district conceded during the two-week trial that Festa, who died in 2011 at the age of 82, sexually abused the plaintiff and other students, it denied that school officials condoned his actions by ignoring reports from staff, students and parents.

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

Jampol, who called the allegations against Festa “abhorrent,” questioned the credibility of witness testimony regarding the ways that abuse was reported to school officials and pointed to inconsistencies in their timelines. She also noted the abuse occurred in an era when parents and organizations were not as aware of the issue of child sex abuse.

On Friday, the jury requested readback of the testimony of two witnesses — a district social worker who said she was not aware of Festa's conduct and a man who said he too was victimized by Festa. That man testified that he told his parents about the about the abuse and that they informed the middle school assistant principal.

State lawmakers in 2019 passed the Child Victims Act, which allowed childhood survivors of sexual abuse a one-year window to file a lawsuit for damages. Then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo extended the window a year to August 2021, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the law's passage, survivors were prevented from filing suit once they turned 23.

A Newsday investigation found 27 Long Island school districts paid a combined $31.6 million to settle 42 CVA lawsuits by former students who say teachers, administrators and fellow students sexually abused them. The individual settlement amounts range from $5,000 to $8 million. About 100 CVA lawsuits against public school districts on Long Island are still pending.

Herricks previously paid $1.25 million to settle four CVA cases involving Festa, with the settlement amounts ranging from $50,000 to $800,000, according to documents Newsday obtained from the district under the Freedom of Information Law.

Another two CVA lawsuits against Herricks have been settled, but the district has not responded to Newsday’s records requests regarding those suits. Another case reached a tentative settlement last week, according to state Supreme Court Justice Leonard Steinman. The school board has not yet approved that agreement.

For this 2023-24 school year, Herricks set aside $2.1 million for “claims and judgments” in its voter-approved budget. The board of education added $3.5 million to the fund in recent months, citing the need to pay for CVA lawsuits. The board approved adding $2 million in February and $1.5 million at its meeting last week.

The allegations against Festa span from 1973 to 1991. He was arrested by Suffolk police in 1993  and accused of sexually abusing six teenagers in his Ronkonkoma neighborhood. He pleaded guilty in 1995 to sodomizing the boys and was sentenced to 5 years of probation and required to register as a sex offender.

A Nassau County jury Friday found the Herricks Union Free School District was not negligent in a Child Victims Act case involving a high school graduate who alleged he was sexually abused by a school psychologist in the late 1980s.

In a decision that appeared to surprise many in the Mineola courtroom, the jury of five women and one man found the district did not act with reckless disregard in failing to protect the plaintiff, identified in court records as J.G., from Vincent Festa, despite prior warnings and reports of the psychologist sexually abusing other students at the school in the prior decade.

The jury deliberated for eight hours over three days before reaching its verdict.

Plaintiff attorney Jeffrey Herman of Manhattan had sought $14 million in damages for his client.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A Nassau County jury Friday found the Herricks Union Free School District was not negligent in a Child Victims Act case involving a high school graduate who alleged he was sexually abused by a school psychologist in the late 1980s.
  • The jury of five women and one man found the district did not act with reckless disregard in failing to protect the plaintiff, identified in court records as J.G., from Vincent Festa, despite prior warnings and reports of the psychologist sexually abusing other students at the school in the prior decade.
  • The jury deliberated for eight hours over the course of three days before reaching its verdict.

“We're surprised and disappointed,” Herman said 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. So that's what this is about. We can't control what the jury does with the case.”

Timothy Martin, of Lynbrook, one of  the jurors who voted not to hold the district legally responsible, said while he was sympathetic to the victim, there was not enough evidence to prove Herricks was aware of Festa's conduct and failed to take action.

“They didn't have enough concrete evidence to prove that they were negligent,” Martin told Newsday. “We were looking for documentation. There was no documentation. There were no complaints. And the one witness they did have, his account was not concrete.”

In a statement to district parents Friday, Herricks Superintendent Tony Sinanis and board of education members said, “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 case, heard before acting Justice Felice Muraca in  state Supreme Court, is one of 21 claims filed under the CVA accusing Herricks High School administrators of ignoring reports that Festa abused students during his two-decade career in the district. It was the first CVA case to go to trial on Long Island.

The plaintiff alleged Festa established a relationship with him while he was a middle school student and later provided him with pornography and sexually abused him behind a closed door in his office on four occasions in ninth and 10th grades.

“He stole his first sexual experience from him,” Herman told the jury during closing arguments Wednesday.

Herman outlined at least 10 instances when a student, parent or high school staff member reported alleged abuse by Festa in the decade before the plaintiff attended the school. Herman said those “reports and warnings” should have caused the district to “stop, investigate and prevent” the abuse by the psychologist.

While the district conceded during the two-week trial that Festa, who died in 2011 at the age of 82, sexually abused the plaintiff and other students, it denied that school officials condoned his actions by ignoring reports from staff, students and parents.

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

Jampol, who called the allegations against Festa “abhorrent,” questioned the credibility of witness testimony regarding the ways that abuse was reported to school officials and pointed to inconsistencies in their timelines. She also noted the abuse occurred in an era when parents and organizations were not as aware of the issue of child sex abuse.

On Friday, the jury requested readback of the testimony of two witnesses — a district social worker who said she was not aware of Festa's conduct and a man who said he too was victimized by Festa. That man testified that he told his parents about the about the abuse and that they informed the middle school assistant principal.

State lawmakers in 2019 passed the Child Victims Act, which allowed childhood survivors of sexual abuse a one-year window to file a lawsuit for damages. Then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo extended the window a year to August 2021, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the law's passage, survivors were prevented from filing suit once they turned 23.

A Newsday investigation found 27 Long Island school districts paid a combined $31.6 million to settle 42 CVA lawsuits by former students who say teachers, administrators and fellow students sexually abused them. The individual settlement amounts range from $5,000 to $8 million. About 100 CVA lawsuits against public school districts on Long Island are still pending.

Herricks previously paid $1.25 million to settle four CVA cases involving Festa, with the settlement amounts ranging from $50,000 to $800,000, according to documents Newsday obtained from the district under the Freedom of Information Law.

Another two CVA lawsuits against Herricks have been settled, but the district has not responded to Newsday’s records requests regarding those suits. Another case reached a tentative settlement last week, according to state Supreme Court Justice Leonard Steinman. The school board has not yet approved that agreement.

For this 2023-24 school year, Herricks set aside $2.1 million for “claims and judgments” in its voter-approved budget. The board of education added $3.5 million to the fund in recent months, citing the need to pay for CVA lawsuits. The board approved adding $2 million in February and $1.5 million at its meeting last week.

The allegations against Festa span from 1973 to 1991. He was arrested by Suffolk police in 1993  and accused of sexually abusing six teenagers in his Ronkonkoma neighborhood. He pleaded guilty in 1995 to sodomizing the boys and was sentenced to 5 years of probation and required to register as a sex offender.

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