A Los Angeles jury has awarded $23 million to a 14-year-old victim that was molested by a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher. Forrest Stobbe, 42, a long time teacher at Queen Anne Place Elementary School befriended the student and his family, taking him to amusement parks, and showering him with gifts. The abuse started in October 2008, and continued to molest him until July 2009 when the boy told his father about the abuse.
Stobbe was arrested and charge with lewd acts on a child and continuous sexual abuse of a child younger than 14. He pled guilty, and was sentenced in 2011 to 16 years in prison.
Lawyers for the victim were able to successfully prove that the abuse could have been prevented by LAUSD officials, beleaguered by sexual abuse cases, if they had acted on several instances of complaints and warning signs.
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.” Los Angeles Times, 19 Dec 2012
The case lays the groundwork for the six lawsuits, and over 180 damage claims, filed by students and their parents against Mark Berndt and the LAUSD. Berndt has been charged with 23 counts of committing lewd acts on children while he was a teacher at Miramonte Elementary School.