Kent Place is sued over sex assaults

Victims' families cite negligence

Friday, August 29, 2003

BY JUDITH LUCAS
Star-Ledger Staff

The families of two girls sexually molested by a teacher while attending Kent Place in Summit have filed a civil suit against the century-old preparatory school and the instructor seeking unspecified damages for emotional distress.

The families said in the lawsuit filed last week in Superior Court in Elizabeth that Kent Place was negligent in its handling of Kyle Barniak. It said Kent Place allowed the former science teacher to repeatedly sexually assault the students inside the school building between March 1 and Oct. 31, 2000.

The school failed in its responsibility to protect students from harm, to stop sexual relationships from developing, and to instruct staff members to detect any such activities, the suit said.

Barniak, who taught at the school for three years, took advantage of his position as a teacher, basketball coach and advisor and encouraged the students to believe he was romantically interested in them, the suit said.

In February, Barniak, 31, was sentenced to seven years in prison at the state's Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center for sex offenders in Avenel after admitting to the abuse.

Barniak committed a series of assaults and batteries on the students and should pay unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, the suit said.

Authorities learned of the assaults in November 2000 after the youngest of three students, age 14, talked to police.

The lawsuit involves the two older victims, who were 15 and 17 at the time.

The youngest victim is not part of the legal action against Barniak and the school.

Lawrence Kotler, a Florham Park attorney, said yesterday the lawsuit was inevitable.

"The school was grossly negligent in taking reasonable measures to insure the safety of the students," said Kotler. "We hope the school will use this as an opportunity to mend its ways."

"I don't think there is any foundation for any of the claims," said Kent Place spokesman Anthony Cicatiello. "It took us somewhat by surprise."

Cicatiello also released a prepared statement from the school yesterday that said Kent Place was unaware of Barniak's criminal activity and took immediate steps to suspend and eventually dismiss Barniak. The statement said in part: "Kent Place is deeply saddened by the crimes committed by its former teacher ..."

"It is unfortunate that certain families decide to file a civil suit against Kent Place School based on criminal actions of its former teacher."

The lawsuit puts the blame squarely on the exclusive girls' school for its alleged inaction even as rumors spread about Barniak's encounters with the students.

Barniak was only able to commit his acts of sexual assault as a direct result of the defendant, Kent Place School's breach of the duty to assure the students' safety, the suit said.

The sexual assaults took place inside Barniak's darkened middle school classroom, before and after school, the suit said.

Judith Lucas covers Union County Courthouse. She can be reached at jlucas@starledger.com or (908) 527-4011.

Source: The Star-Ledger