Vincent Farnsworth 2:38 p.m., Sept. 26
Failure to Report Student-Teacher Sexual Relations Costs SD Unified $1.25 Million
The California Court of Appeals has confirmed a $1.25 million judgment against the San Diego Unified School District, a decision filed Tuesday reports. The case stems from the District’s failure to report suspected sexual abuse while plaintiff A. Wieder was a student at the District’s School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA).
In 2007, Wieder filed a complaint naming the District, John Lee, and Elizabeth Laughlin as defendants, alleging negligence and failure in their statutory duty to report suspected child abuse. In 2008 the complaint was amended to name sexual abuse, sexual battery, battery, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
At trial, various school employees testified concerning their knowledge about a sexual and romantic relationship between Wieder and defendant Lee, that began while Wieder was in the 10th grade and continued through her high school years. Lee had been Wieder’s ninth grade physics teacher.
In the plaintiff’s sophomore year, she was a member of an after-school martial arts club that Lee instructed, and he often gave her a ride home after class in his pickup truck equipped with a camper shell. Wieder had developed a crush on Lee, who was 36 years old at the time. Shortly after Wieder’s 16th birthday, Lee initiated a sexual relationship.
The pair had intercourse one to three times per week throughout Wieder’s junior and senior years, according to testimony. Most of the time, Lee would drive her to a Mission Bay parking lot, where they would have sex in the back of his truck. The two were also close at school, with Wieder frequently eating lunch in Lee’s classroom and exhibiting displays of affection several testifying believe to be excessive.
Andrew Hinds, a teacher at SCPA, said he saw Lee and Wieder “hugging, grappling, stroking, and petting.” Wieder often spoke about Lee in class while she was a student of Hinds. In November 2005, Hinds began to suspect her relationship with Lee was sexual in nature.
Matt Stoever, another SPCA teacher, concurred. He told Hinds that a substitute teacher told him Wieder had confessed the nature of her relationship with Lee to a friend of the substitute. Hinds then wrote a letter to Laughlin, the school’s principal, informing her of what he had seen and heard. Stoever prepared a memorandum regarding what he’d seen, and made it available to police in a subsequent investigation.
Andrew Barbolla, yet another teacher at SPCA, testified that he heard from students that they believed Lee and Wieder were “maybe a little too close.” He also observed Wieder riding in the middle seat of Lee’s truck next to Lee, saw the couple hug multiple times, and witnessed Wieder run up to and jump on Lee, straddling him with her legs around his waist. Barbolla says he confronted Lee about the inappropriate relationship, and also conferred with Stoever and Laughlin about it, telling Stoever “it’s only a matter of time until [Lee] gets popped.” While Laughlin agreed she “needed to do something” about Lee, neither of them reported suspicions to Child Protective Services or police.
Hortencia Garcia-Rubio, another teacher, testified that she confronted Lee after having concerns expressed to her by another student. She says she also informed Laughlin about the report. The student, Daniel Hagos, testified that Susan Strasser, another SPCA teacher, was within five feet of Lee and Wieder while they engaged in some of the inappropriate behavior he’d witnessed.
Priscilla Pearson, an SPCA security guard, said she saw Lee and Wieder leave the campus together in Lee’s truck. She also saw them alone in Lee’s classroom, with Lee seated and Wieder standing behind him, running her fingers through his hair. Pearson immediately reported what she saw to vice-principal Emma Martinez, who went to the classroom and saw Wieder’s arm around Lee’s neck and her head on his chest, while other students milled about nearby.
Martinez pulled Lee aside and told him she thought the behavior was inappropriate, then reported what she’d seen to Laughlin. Martinez later wrote Lee, stating she was “shocked” with what she’d witnessed.
When it was principal Laughlin’s turn to testify, she denied Barbolla had reported any concerns to her. She likewise denied expressing concern about Lee to Hinds, and said Garcia-Rubio never reported student concerns either.
None of the witnesses reported what they’d seen to any higher authority than Laughlin. Child Protective Services and police did not become involved. The truth came out only after Wieder graduated SPCA and entered college, at which point Lee confessed to her mother that he and Wieder had shared a romantic and sexual relationship since her sophomore year. The relationship ended shortly after this conversation.
Before trial, Lee entered into a settlement agreement with Wieder for $40,000. After the trial, a jury awarded Wieder $250,000 in economic damages and $1,000,000 in noneconomic damages. It assigned 40 percent of the fault for harm caused to Wieder to the District, and 60 percent to Lee himself. The trial court then entered judgment against the District for $650,000.
On appeal, the District argued that Penal Code 11166, which requires “mandated reporters” including teachers, classified employees of any public school and others to report suspected child abuse, does not create a civil cause of action for its failure to follow the law. The district also argued that it “does not have any direct, mandatory duty under section 11166 to report reasonable suspicions of child abuse.” The appellate court struck down the appeal and upheld the judgment in total.
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