A volunteer reader at Wayside Elementary School brought two dogs into a second-grade classroom last week and invited students to pet them.
Eight-year-old Leilani Rivera leaned forward to hug one of the animals.
The dog bit her, its teeth cutting open the right side of her face and splitting her lip.
“I was crying and it was painful,” Leilani said Thursday at the law office of Chain Cohn Stiles.
The firm has filed a claim – a precursor to a lawsuit – against the Bakersfield City School District and Kern County Superintendent of Schools.
The school district issued a written statement saying school officials immediately sought medical attention for Leilani and began an investigation into the circumstances of the incident.
“The safety and well-being of our students is our top priority,” the district said.
Due to pending litigation, the district said it has been advised by legal counsel not to discuss the incident or investigation but is reaching out to Wayside parents to answer questions they have and provide counseling services to students.
Leilani’s face remains swollen and covered in stitches. Attorney Matthew C. Clark said she’s on medication and dealing with pain as her body heals.
Clark said he has contacted the district for its policies on dogs in classrooms, among other things, but hasn’t heard back. He said this case serves as a warning to school officials and parents on allowing animals near students on school campuses.
“Dogs are unpredictable,” he said.
Bakersfield police spokesman Sgt. Nathan McCauley said the dog that bit Leilani was quarantined by Animal Control and released May 11. The incident did not appear to be intentional on the part of the owner, McCauley said.
It’s unclear why the volunteer reader, Ann Ardell, and a man who came with her brought the dogs into school May 9, Clark said. He said Ardell had read at the school previously without bringing the animals.
Ardell is responsible for dogs’ actions, no matter the circumstances, Clark said.
“You are strictly liable when your dog bites somebody,” he said.
The dogs are believed to be either chows or akitas, Clark said. Both breeds are blacklisted from homeowners’ insurance policies in California due to their reputation for aggressive behavior, he said.
Clark said the family wants a policy where dogs are barred from the classroom.
Leilani’s aunt, Andrea Gonzalez, 33, said she wants to make sure what happened to her niece doesn’t happen to any other children. She said Leilani has been brave, but she’s been through a lot.
Leilani can only eat and drink through a straw as she heals, Gonzales said, and the first couple nights after the attack she woke up every two hours in pain.
Clark said Leilani’s long-term prognosis is unknown. He hopes she heals completely, but scarring is possible.
The claim does not list a specific dollar amount but is designated as “unlimited,” meaning exceeding $25,000. It says the family has incurred “substantial” medical bills to treat Leilani’s injuries.
In 2016, Chain Cohn Stiles settled a lawsuit for $2 million on behalf of a Bakersfield woman who was attacked by a Kern County sheriff’s K-9.
In a statement, the Bakersfield City School District said:
“When this incident occurred, school officials immediately sought medical attention for the child. After we ensured the student was receiving appropriate medical attention, the District promptly initiated an investigation into the circumstances and details of the incident.
Shortly after the investigation began, we were made aware that a claim was presented and litigation is pending. As a result, BCSD was advised by legal counsel to not discuss the details of the incident or the pending investigation.
While the district is not able to discuss the incident that occurred or the investigation, please be assured that we are continuing to prioritize the needs of our students. Accordingly, we are reaching out to Wayside Elementary parents to answer any questions they may have and to advise them that counseling services will be available to students who may have been affected by the incident.
For information on BCSD’s board policies and procedures, please visit bcsd.com.”