Mar 6, 2018

Settlement reached in lawsuit over educators, alleged cult

Associated Press
March 6, 2018

HARTFORD, Conn. –  A settlement has been reached in a bizarre lawsuit that accused four Connecticut high school educators of "indoctrinating" three sisters into a religious cult that celebrates death and causing the siblings to suffer severe personality changes.

The suit, which was filed nearly four years ago, was reported settled after a conference led by a federal judge in New Haven on Thursday, according to court documents. Terms were not disclosed. The settlement must be approved by the local school board.

The sisters' parents sued the school district in the wealthy Hartford suburb of Avon. They also sued four Avon High School educators, including three Spanish teachers and a guidance counselor. The names of the parents and their daughters were kept secret during the court proceedings. The sisters were ages 22, 19 and 16 when the lawsuit was filed in 2014.

The lawsuit said the two older daughters were "indoctrinated into a religious cult that promotes martyrdom and celebrates death," and that caused them to experience "fantasies of suicide ideation and martyrdom." The cult wasn't named. The youngest sister also was targeted for indoctrination by the educators, but she eventually "broke free," the suit said.

"All three girls experienced sudden and severe personality changes," the lawsuit said. "They became flat and distant, reclusive, secretive, and non-communicative. They lost their humor and their empathy. They began speaking in a bizarre new language. They became unable to think critically or independently."

The lawsuit also accused the educators of making the two older sisters believe their parents had abused them by planting "false memories" in their minds.

One teacher, the lawsuit said, "taught her students to believe in superstition, magic, and a non-scientific, anti-intellectual worldview."

The educators and school district denied all the allegations.

"It's a business decision and all the defendants ... continue to deny any liability," said Johanna Zelman, an attorney for the school district.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs declined to comment.

Debra Chute, chairwoman of the Avon Board of Education, said she expected the board to review the settlement and vote on it March 20. Details of the deal may then be released.

The lawsuit also had initially named Wellesley College in Massachusetts as a defendant, but the school was later dropped from the suit for undisclosed reasons. The two older sisters attended Wellesley and the Avon educators visited them there, the lawsuit said.

Court documents filed in December said the two older daughters had reunited with their parents and agreed to participate in family counseling.

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