By Howard Blume (Los Angeles Times)
December 19, 2012
A jury has awarded $6.9 million to a 14-year-old boy who was molested by a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher when he was a fifth-grade student.
The judgment, among the largest ever awarded in a district molestation case, comes at a time when L.A. Unified faces close to 200 pending molestation and lewd conduct claims arising from another teacher's alleged conduct at Miramonte Elementary School.
Tuesday's jury award stems from acts committed by Forrest Stobbe, a veteran teacher at Queen Anne Place Elementary School in the Mid-Wilshire area. 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. He is currently serving a 16-year sentence in prison.
The case turned on how much responsibility the school system bore, and whether district employees should have recognized warning signs that Stobbe posed a threat to the boy. Attorneys for the school system insisted that district staff acted in a professional and appropriate manner and could not have known what Stobbe was doing.
Stobbe molested the boy beginning in October 2008, when the 10-year-old was his student, and continued to abuse him through the following July, when he was arrested.
Early in the school year, Stobbe befriended the boy, earning his trust, then began to molest him in his classroom in episodes that became more brazen and invasive. He also gave the boy numerous gifts.
Stobbe also ingratiated himself with the victim's family, buying the boy season passes to amusement parks, where he would take the boy, then molest him before dropping him off at home.
The family appreciated the teacher's interest so much that the boy's father asked his son if Stobbe should become his godfather. It was then that the boy told his father of the abuse, the father testified.
The evidence against Stobbe included a jar of petroleum jelly in his school desk that tested positive for the boy's DNA. The boy told police that Stobbe used the jelly as a lubricant for sex acts.
The plaintiffs argued that there were abundant warning signs that should have alerted Stobbe's supervisors.
More than two years before his arrest, Stobbe was observed alone with a girl in his car. He allegedly told the principal that he had parental permission to give the student a ride, but that was never verified. He also had private lunches with students in his classroom, which was against school rules.
In another incident, an angry student pushed Stobbe down a flight of stairs, injuring the teacher. The student later declined to talk to police, who consider him another possible victim.
In November 2008, a girl in Stobbe's class complained that the teacher was making her feel uncomfortable. Stobbe, she said, was stroking her hair, putting it into a ponytail and had once touched her buttocks.
Principal Mary Ann Hall testified that she called the police department, which advised her to handle the matter on her own — a claim the Los Angeles Police Department disputes. If police had been alerted to allegations of such contact, the department would have launched an investigation, said Det. Moses Castillo, who supervised the investigation after Stobbe's arrest.
Hall, who has since retired, testified that she properly notified her supervisors. Attorneys for the family asserted that Hall either failed to do so, or that her supervisors failed to act on the information.
In the end, the panel of six men and six women found that L.A. Unified was 30% responsible for total damages, which they calculated at $23 million. The other 70% of the liability was assigned to Forrest Stobbe, but attorneys said they had no plans to collect from the imprisoned former educator.
Responding to the verdict, 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," general counsel David Holmquist said. "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."
Issues in the Stobbe case — alleged lack of oversight, missed warning signs — could come into play with the Miramonte cases.
There, parents questioned teacher Mark Berndt's propensity for taking pictures of students, an issue that administrators did not pursue. Photos later emerged of blindfolded students allegedly being spoon-fed Berndt's semen, among other alleged wrongdoings.
Berndt has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewd conduct.
Damage claims — the precursor to a lawsuit — have been filed by 126 students and 63 parents. There are also six lawsuits on behalf of 37 students and one involving 11 parents.
"Some of the same issues in the Miramonte case are highlighted here," said attorney Don Beck of the San Diego firm Estey & Bomberger, which represented the family of the victim in the Stobbe case. "The same lack of monitoring teachers, the same lack of supervision that allowed these events to happen."