In 2013, the Hawaii State Department of Health was searching for a social worker to manage cases for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Workers in that classification are “expected to exercise considerable authority, judgment, and decision-making responsibility,” according to the online description.
The state’s choice? A counselor at the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind who was one of two officials accused in a federal class action lawsuit of failing to stop rampant sexual abuse between students.
Eight months before he got the health department job, Scott O’Neal had agreed to pay $750,000 to settle the lawsuit, which alleged that 35 students were sexually abused by a group of older classmates who called themselves “the ringleaders.”
O’Neal had been providing counseling services at the school, the only public school in the state for deaf and blind students, as an independent contractor.
According to the settlement, he denied the claims against him but settled because he sought to avoid the time and expense of continued litigation.
In written responses to questions from Civil Beat, O’Neal said he met the state’s requirements for the job and took issue with the idea that his involvement in the civil suit might be seen as disqualifying.
“The question should be, ‘Just because someone is named in a lawsuit, regardless of the outcome or their actual guilt or innocence, should they be branded as guilty and treated as such for the rest of their lives?'” he wrote.
The state kicked in another $5 million to compensate victims and settle the case, which also named the school’s principal at the time, Sydney Dickerson, a state Department of Education employee.
Dickerson now is listed on the website of Kapiolani Community College as a student support specialist, meaning that both school officials named in the lawsuit are on the public payroll.
“It certainly raises your eyebrows,” Louis Erteschik, executive director of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, which advocates for people with disabilities, said of O’Neal’s state job.
“Just because someone is named in a lawsuit, regardless of the outcome or their actual guilt or innocence, should they be branded as guilty and treated as such for the rest of their lives?” — Scott O’Neal
Erteschik, while generally familiar with the sexual abuse case at the school, did not know about O’Neal or his health department position before he was contacted by Civil Beat and so did not want to draw conclusions about his fitness for the job.
However, “It certainly is a cause for some genuine concern,” he said.
The Department of Health was aware of O’Neal’s involvement in the federal case, spokeswoman Janice Okubo said in an email.
But department officials could not get full access to Department of Education or court records, leaving the department “unable to obtain any information to support further investigation or question the employee’s fitness for his employment,” Okubo wrote.
O’Neal’s job references didn’t say anything negative about him, she said.
Since his hiring in October 2013, he has met all expectations and not been the subject of any complaints, she said.
In his written responses to Civil Beat, O’Neal said that he was asked to provide counseling services at the school only after the cases had been reviewed in meetings three times by parents, school officials and an independent assessor.
“If there were concerns around abuse, I knew about them after everyone knew,” O’Neal wrote. “My job was to provide treatment around those already identified and reported concerns.”
If students reported abuse during counseling, he said, it was relayed to the school, the family and authorities “as appropriate,” he wrote.
One of his colleagues at the school believed O’Neal did not take sexual abuse seriously enough. “I felt Scott downplayed a lot of incidents,” James Lambrecht, who served for 12 years as a house parent at the school, wrote in a signed statement as part of a Department of Education investigation.
“It certainly raises your eyebrows.” — Louis Erteschik, executive director of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center
Lambrecht recalled an incident in which students were caught in a sexually compromising situation. Although police were called, Lambrecht wrote, O’Neal later told him he believed the sex was consensual, “which I thought was a ridiculous thing to say” because one of the students had tried to hide.
Lambrecht speculated that O’Neal was protecting the accused student because he hoped to change him “into a non-offender.”
When officials found out about a case in which a girl was forced into sex on a school bus, he wrote, “I was hoping that would be the last nail in the coffin, and the incident would be something Sydney (Dickerson, the principal) and Scott couldn’t sweep under the rug.”
O’Neal was a contract counselor at the school from 1998 until August 2011. The school discontinued its use of his company in the aftermath of the sex abuse cases, DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers said.
O’Neal told Civil Beat that an investigation by DOE found that he had not violated ethics or done anything wrong, and that he voluntarily ended the contract when he started working for the Department of Health.
The case broke into public view in 2011 when a lawsuit was filed in federal court alleging that older students had been victimizing younger classmates for years. The victims were boys and girls who reported being raped, robbed and bullied.
The lawsuit alleged that the defendants failed to monitor the campus properly or in certain cases to notify the authorities, including the police, when abuse was uncovered. It said that the victimizers were emboldened by school officials’ failure to act. The ringleaders admitted to school officials and counselors, including O’Neal, that they had assaulted students, according to the complaint.
Media reports at the time said that three boys were charged with sex assaults, but that the proceedings were secret because they were juveniles.
A Department of Education investigation in 2011 stated that police had identified five suspects they believed had assaulted 35 victims at various locations on the campus starting in 2004, culminating in one of the ringleaders coercing a girl into oral sex on a school bus and videotaping it on his cell phone.
In 2013, the case was settled for $5.75 million, with students receiving payments based on the severity of abuse they suffered. O’Neal’s $750,000 was covered by liability insurance, he said.
O’Neal is licensed as a social worker by the state. The state Regulated Industries Complaints Office investigated a complaint that he had failed to comply with laws governing professional conduct, spokeswoman Daria Loy-Goto said. The case was closed for insufficient evidence in January 2013, she said.
O’Neal told Civil Beat that he found the Department of Health position on the State of Hawaii jobs website and that it seemed like a natural fit given his experience.
O’Neal was hired as a Social Worker IV on Oct. 14, 2013. A little more than a year later, he was promoted to a Social Worker V and now supervises programs in a unit that manages cases for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, Okubo said. He provides technical advice to case managers and oversees support staff. Because of recent staff turnover, he is currently managing four cases himself.
O’Neal told Civil Beat that he has contact with clients of all ages and their families.
In fiscal year 2016, he was paid between $53,364 and $78,996, according to Civil Beat’s state salary database.
O’Neal also serves as executive director of a nonprofit called Signs of Self that helps deaf people live as independently as possible. According to the organization’s most recent tax returns, he was paid $11,915 in 2014.
In recent years, the organization has received most of its income through contracts with the state Department of Human Services.
Okubo said O’Neal disclosed the part-time position on his employment application and that the department does not believe it takes time from his state job or poses any conflicts.