Pastuszek rakes in legal fees representing St. Tammany School Board, DA's office _lowres

Dino Schwertz

A Slidell man who sued the St. Tammany Parish school system several years after he was raped by a janitor in the restroom of his elementary school has been awarded more than $460,000.

Judge Raymond Childress of 22nd Judicial District Court said in his judgment Friday that the school system failed to exercise reasonable care in hiring the janitor, Dino Schwertz.

No one checked Schwertz's references, and the system's Human Resources Department did not communicate information about his criminal history to the school's principal.

Schwertz had been convicted of bank fraud and violating protective orders, but on his job application, he said he had no prior convictions. 

"This court acknowledges the complexities of running a school system as large as that of St. Tammany," the judge said in his ruling. "However, that is not an excuse for the (School Board) to shield itself from its responsibility for the safety of students attending St. Tammany schools."

Schwertz was convicted for the 2007 rape of Justin Bleker, who was 11 at the time. Schwertz is serving a life sentence.

The New Orleans Advocate normally does not name victims of sex crimes, but Bleker, who is now 22, consented to the use of his name when his lawsuit was heard in June.

The judge also awarded $25,000 each to his parents.

Bleker said Friday that he is relieved.

“I’m glad it’s over, at least this part,” he 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.”

Now, he said, he’s waiting to see if the school system is going to appeal.

Meredith Mendez, a spokeswoman for the School Board, said its attorney is reviewing the ruling.

Bleker's mother, Rebecca Hickman, said she cried when she learned about the judgment, feeling both joy and relief.

“No matter the money, now at least they know that they were wrong,” she said of the school system. “And unless the parents stick together and push for change, they’re not gonna stick to it.”

Bleker was a fourth grade special-education student at Abney Elementary School in Slidell in 2007 when Schwertz, who had been hired on a temporary basis, raped him twice in the boys bathroom during the school day, Bleker testified in Schwertz’s 2009 rape trial.

The man threatened to kill the boy and his family if he told anyone, Bleker testified.

His family did not learn of the attacks until 2008, when news broke that Schwertz had been arrested for raping two students at the school.

The family sued the school system for damages in 2011, and the case, which took up five volumes of court records, finally went to trial this year.

The school system denied that it was liable in the case. But Childress said the issue of liability had been thrashed out in a case brought by another one of Schwertz’s victims.

In that case, the trial court had dismissed some of the claims brought against the school system, but the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the dismissals, holding that the school system has a “duty of reasonable care” to students on its campuses.

“It is this court’s conclusion that the deficiencies as determined by the Court of Appeals, as well as the testimony and evidence presented in the case at bar, constitute a breach of the duty of reasonable care” by the school system, Childress wrote.

Multiple errors were made, the judge said, including failure to check Schwertz’s references, failure to investigate lies on his application about his criminal background and failing to fire him immediately when the lies came to light.

“What stood out was the lack of coordination or effort made in the hiring and placing of this janitor, perhaps because of the nature of his work,” Childress wrote. But as a janitor, Schwertz had complete and unsupervised access to the school, restrooms and grounds “every day, and in the presence of school children,” the judge said.

“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 himself and the ever-present janitor, whose supply room was directly outside of the student bathrooms," the ruling said.

Childress awarded Bleker $350,000 for mental and physical pain, anguish and suffering; $20,762 for past medical expenses paid to his therapist; $20,000 for future medical care; and $70,920 for other past medical expenses.

The money awarded to his parents is in response to their claim that their son’s rape hurt their marriage. They have since divorced.

During the trial, Hickman said that the situation “broke” their family.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.