NISKAYUNA — A former Niskayuna student in a lawsuit filed this month is accusing three former classmates of sexually assaulting him while on a school-sponsored trip to the Adirondacks in the late-1970s — when they were all in middle school.
The man also named the Niskayuna Central School District in the suit, accusing the district of not providing sufficient supervision to prevent the alleged abuse.
The suit follows a litany of complaints filed under the state’s Child Victims Act, which opened the door to suits over accusations stemming from incidents that in some cases occurred over 40 years ago. But the lawsuit also presents new questions about how judges and juries will treat allegations of minor-against-minor abuse, as compared to allegations of adults abusing children.
Melissa Breger, an Albany Law School professor who specializes in children and the law, said New York’s juvenile delinquency laws treat children over the age of 7 as old enough to be held responsible for their behavior. At that age, the alleged acts of children are handled in family courts. If the allegations in the suit filed this month were raised at the time of the incident, they would likely have been processed in family court, Breger said.
But it’s unclear how the civil courts will treat the new allegations. Breger said both sides in the civil case could argue that the defendants’ age at the time of the alleged abuse should or shouldn’t be considered, but questions about how to weigh that factor have yet to be sorted out by the courts.
“I don’t think we have a bright line,” Breger said.
The complaint’s allegations stem from a winter trip Van Antwerp students took to Pok-O-MacCready Camp in Wilsboro. The complaint alleges that while on that trip in the winter of either 1978 or 1979, the plaintiff was sexually abused by four male classmates, ages 12 or 13. The plaintiff is identified in the legal paperwork as John Doe; his attorney said he lives in the state.
Stephen Coffey, the plaintiff’s attorney, said the school should have been aware that the camp setting could be a place for someone to be attacked or abused.
“They didn’t provide any supervision,” Coffey said of the district. “They abdicated their responsibility … it was foreseeable that someone in that group could be injured.”
As of Friday, Niskayuna school officials had not been served with the lawsuit, but a spokesman said it would be passed to district counsel once received. A spokesman said the district no longer hosts the trip, which multiple classes of Van Antwerp students went on as part of a multi-day winter camping experience.
The three defendants, now in their mid-50s, are named in the lawsuit. The Daily Gazette is not publishing the names of the defendants in the lawsuit because of their ages at the time of the alleged behavior.
Coffey, of the O’Connell and Aronowitz law firm, said the ages of the alleged perpetrators presented “unusual” issues, while arguing the defendants were old enough to know sexual abuse was wrong. He said his client did not report the incident at the time. Coffey also alleged the defendants continued to harass his client while in high school.
“They continued to torture him all through high school by reminding him, ‘Remember what happened that one time?’ ” Coffey said. “The 13-year-olds are responsible, this isn’t something they can get away with and say, ‘We were only kids.’”
When reached by phone Monday, one of the defendants said he had not yet received the lawsuit and that he didn’t know anything about the alleged abuse.
“I have no clue,” he said when asked about the allegations. “I have no recollection of that at all.”
Breger, the Albany Law School professor, said the defendants could argue their age at the time of the alleged behavior makes them less liable but that evidence of continued harassment could work to counter those claims.
“I think it could be a defense, I’m not convinced it would necessarily be a successful defense,” Breger said. “You still know right from wrong at 12 and 13, you are in middle school, you know not to sexually assault.”
Ultimately, Breger said, the Child Victims Act lawsuits present numerous challenges for plaintiffs looking to prove decades-old allegations.
“The passage of time makes these cases infinitely more difficult to pursue,” she said. “Memories fade and witnesses may die or be missing, so it’s that much harder to bring a cause of action, even in a civil arena.”
But the act of bringing suit, a symbol of righting past wrongs, could help provide relief to many victims of childhood abuse, she said.
“Even if the cause of action is not successful, the act of bringing the case can be cathartic,” she said.