A St. Tammany Parish district court judge found the St Tammany Parish Public School System liable in the rape of a 7-year-old boy by a former janitor at Abney Elementary School, saying the district breached a reasonable standard of care in hiring the janitor, giving him “unsupervised access” to the school and the children and by failing to fire him when his background check came back with felony convictions on it.
Justin Bleker, now 22, was molested and raped multiple times by janitor Dino Schwertz in 2007. Schwertz is currently serving a life sentence in Angola Prison for crimes committed against Bleker and another boy at Abney.
Bleker and his parents sued the St Tammany Parish Public School System for damages, which the judge awarded nearly $462,000 to him, and $50,000 to his parents for pain and suffering and for the cost of past and future medical expenses.
“The incidents involving Justin all occurred when he was allowed to leave the classroom on his own to use the restroom, with no one in the bathroom stall but him and the ever-present janitor whose supply was directly outside the of the student bathrooms,” wrote 22nd Judicial District Court Judge Raymond Childress in his ruling, “How could this ever have been acceptable?”
Childress’ decision comes after a week-long civil trial in May.
WWL-TV does not typically publish the names of rape victims, but Bleker wanted to speak out about the situation in an on-camera interview leading up to the trial, saying he wanted to district to make changes to security procedures to keep what happened to him from happening again.
After learning of Childress’ decision, Bleker said, “It gives me peace of mind now the school can’t sit there and say that it didn’t happen and it’s not their fault. It is their fault.”
Schwertz applied to the school board for a custodian position in June 2007. The application asked, “Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offense?” Schwertz checked "no."
Louisiana law requires schools to conduct criminal background checks on janitors, but Schwertz's background check wasn't completed for three months, and the law allows the district to hire someone temporarily before that background check comes back.
When Schwertz's was finally returned to the district in September 2007, it revealed the janitor was on probation for bank fraud and he had another criminal conviction for violating a protective order.
The school district allowed him to continue working at Abney. It was around the time of the background checks that Bleker said the abuse started ramping up.
The judge found the school board broke its own policies by failing to do a complete background check on Schwertz and failing to call and check his references. “The excuses set forth by STPSB for failure to do these things were unreasonable,” Judge Childress wrote.
Bleker and his mother expressed relief and hope that the district will more closely watch who they hire.
"Tears of joy. A relief that hopefully something will happen," said Rebecca Hickman, Bleker's mother.
The school system implemented a "buddy system" policy after the rapes, requiring children to take a buddy with them when they go to the bathroom.
The school district changed lawyers during the Bleker case in 2014, after investigative reports by WWL-TV and the New Orleans Advocate revealed the board’s attorney, Harry Pastuszek, was both working as an Assistant District Attorney and getting paid hourly through his private law firm to defend St Tammany schools in civil lawsuits, such as the Bleker case.
“Is the prosecutor going to investigate the school board if they find evidence in the criminal case was covered up,” asked Pace University Law Professor Bennett Gershman when the story first broke in 2014.
After the St Tammany Parish DA’s office convicted Schwertz of the aggravated rape of Justin Bleker and molesting another boy, Pastuszek secured an affidavit from Schwertz saying he didn’t rape anyone, then raised questions in court filings about whether the boy was actually raped.
“How can he work for the St Tammany Parish district attorney's office, who prosecuted and put Dino Schwertz away and yet now, be representing the school board? How can he be on both sides,” Hickman asked.
Pastuszek was getting a state salary, District Attorneys’ retirement benefits, extra retirement benefits former DA Walter Reed secured for a few chosen employees, all the while billing the school board hourly for the work he and his private law firm were doing for them.
The La. Board of Ethics launched an investigation into Pastuszek's payment arrangement in response to the reports that is still pending.
The St. Tammany Parish Public School system has not yet responded to a request for comment on Friday’s judgment.