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Director Faces Trial for Texas School Fight Club

(CN) - The former director of a Texas school for the developmentally disabled cannot sidestep a lawsuit that claims he is liable for "fight club" matches between residents, staged and recorded by staff members, a federal judge ruled.

Six staff members were charged in 2009 with organizing the fights after police uncovered a cellphone containing videos of the abuse, which went on from January 2008 to February 2009. The final defendant to be tried, alleged ring leader Timothy Dixon, was sentenced this past April to five years in prison for causing injury to a disabled person.

Armando Hernandez Jr. and David Hernandez, two mentally disabled residents at Corpus Christi State School, filed a civil lawsuit through their guardians when the charges became public.

The federal complaint seeks damages from school staff members and several administrators of the Texas Department of Aging and Disability, which oversees state schools for the disabled.

Armando and David Hernandez were kicked, punched and pushed by other residents and the occasional staff member during the fights, according to the complaint. They were also allegedly subjected to bodily restraints, as staff members egged them on and rolled tape for their own entertainment.

Marcos Pena, a director in charge of a dormitory unit at the school, claimed immunity shielded him from claims raised in the plaintiffs' amended complaint.

The court disagreed last week, noting that Pena's role as director for the Tropical Unit left him responsible for the overall performance of residents and staff within the unit's three or four dorms.

Pena allegedly received a memo in 2007 about escalating reports of horseplay involving staff that could lead to violence.

Federal prosecutors also notified administrators about the allegations when it concluded a statewide investigation of Texas' schools for the mentally disabled on Dec. 1, 2008.

Despite these reports, Pena testified that his unit never discussed staff members' alleged role in a resident fight club.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos cited more examples of Pena's testimony to dismiss his claim for immunity.

The director had testified that every staff member had an obligation to keep residents safe from violent assaults, though neither he, nor any co-defendants, made any changes to his unit's policies as an increasing number of residents sustained injuries from fights.

Ramos also pointed out that Corpus Christi State School let direct-care providers supervise residents in the evening when the school was understaffed.

Though some of these care providers had helped stage the fights, Pena claimed that the evidence did not necessarily implicate the system. He said it merely showed a need for more supervisory personnel.

Corpus Christi also allowed staff perpetrators to fill out incident reports in which they were personally involved. Pena never questioned this policy, though he admitted it could lead to under-reporting of such incidents.

Pena also testified that he did not know why there were no video cameras to monitor his units, and that he never asked for the installation of a security camera.

In light of the fight club incident reports, the school should have not relied on direct-care providers to supervise alone after 5 p.m., the judge found. Spot checks and other required monitoring was also lacking, the eight-page decision states. "Additionally, screening of employees was found wanting."

Though Pena's own expert witness said the defendants "acted in a manner consistent with the applicable standard of care," the judge said that declaration relied on several disputed factual observations.

"All of this demonstrates that there are disputed issues of material fact precluding summary judgment in favor of Marcos Pena," he wrote.

Other state administrators lost their bid for summary judgment in April 2010 before U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack.

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