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LAUSD must pay $6.9 million in teacher molestation case

A jury awarded $6.9 million Tuesday to a fifth-grader molested by a teacher in a case that could presage the outcome of more than 100 pending molestation and lewd conduct claims against the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The damages may be the largest ever awarded to a single victim in a molestation or lewd conduct case involving the nation’s second-largest school system.

The litigation arose from the criminal acts of Forrest Stobbe, a veteran teacher at Queen Anne Elementary School in the Mid-Wilshire district. In September 2011, Stobbe pleaded no contest to two counts of a lewd act on a child and to continuous sexual abuse of a child younger than 14.

Stobbe molested the 10-year-old while the boy was his student, beginning in October 2008 and running through the following July, when he was arrested.

In the civil litigation the defendant was L.A. Unified and the case turned on how much responsibility the school system bore for what happened. Stobbe had a clean record, but there were previous complaints and incidents that allegedly foreshadowed the later molestation.

The principal and other employees had warnings that something was amiss and could have taken action that would have prevented or limited the abuse, said attorneys for the family.

Attorneys for the school system painted a different picture. They did not question that the young victim suffered a horrible ordeal. But they insisted that the district was not to blame because there was no credible evidence, known to the district, that Stobbe posed a threat to children. Moreover, the district argued, its staff had acted in a professional and appropriate manner.

The case could have enormous financial implications for L.A. Unified. Its liability for molestation by employees does not hinge on the acts themselves, but on the district’s actions and policies that would prevent or respond to harm to children, attorneys for both sides said.

The same issue is likely to come up in litigation attached to the January arrest of Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt. He is suspected of spoon-feeding his semen to blindfolded children as part of what he called a “tasting game,” among other alleged wrongdoing.

Parents had previously called attention to his propensity for taking pictures of students, an issue that  administrators did not pursue. L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy himself has criticized that lack of follow-through.

In court, such an oversight could contribute to substantial liability if the Stobbe litigation is any guide.

“Some of the same issues in the Miramonte case are highlighted here,” said attorney Don Beck of the San Diego-based firm Estey & Bomberger, which represented the family. “The same lack of monitoring teachers, the same lack of supervision that allowed these events to happen.”

A district spokesman emphasized the district’s commitment to the safety of children.

“We take our duty to protect our students seriously and are continually looking for ways that we can strengthen our screening and reporting processes to ensure that no child is ever hurt in this way,” said general counsel David Holmquist. “Although we can’t change what happened in this case, we remain committed to doing everything in our power to promote healing and improve trust with those impacted.”

In the Berndt case, 126 students and 63 parents have filed claims for damages against L.A. Unified. There are also six lawsuits on behalf of 37 students and one involving 11 parents.

-- Howard Blume

 
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