SAN DIEGO – A jury in San Diego decided Wednesday that a 19-year-old man who sued a California school district after being sexually abused by a female teacher should receive $2.1 million.
The jurors found that the San Diego Unified School District was negligent in failing to prevent former Spanish teacher Toni Sutton from molesting the student over an eight-month period beginning when he was 15 and she was 37, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
The district must pay $840,000 of the $2.1 million, the newspaper reported, adding that district officials have not yet decided whether to appeal.
— San Diego Union-Tribune (@sdut) August 9, 2018
Sutton, now 40, who was sentenced to prison two years ago in the case, had sex with the student in her classroom dozens of times during first period with the door locked while the student was supposed to be in class, court documents showed, and the boy’s attendance suffered. According to the report, she also had sex with the student in her car and home dozens of times.
In court documents and testimony, sources described how Sutton groomed the student, referred to as James Doe, for a sexual relationship by buying food for him, spending lots of time with him outside of class and driving him to school. The first sexual abuse occurred when the boy was 15 and the teacher was 37, according to court records.
Several teachers had known months before Sutton’s arrest that Doe was missing class to be with Sutton in her classroom, according to documents and testimony. They had emailed Sutton, asking where Doe was, and she replied multiple times that he was with her. School employees knew Doe’s attendance was poor.
School administrators had also previously warned Sutton that she shouldn’t be sharing explicit personal details with students, according to documents and testimony. They had ordered her on multiple occasions to stop spending so much personal time in the classroom with students, Doe’s attorneys argued.
Yet school officials did not follow up with Sutton to ensure she stopped her behavior, attorneys said.
“Nobody ever follows up on anything here,” said Michael Kirby, one of Doe’s attorneys, during the trial. “There was no exercise of reasonable care in this case.”
She was also never officially disciplined or written up for her questionable behavior in her personnel files, he said.
“I couldn’t believe there was no site file,” said one juror, who asked to remain anonymous, interviewed after the verdict. “She could’ve been written up for anything.”
Sutton pleaded guilty in 2016 to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor and oral copulation with a minor. She was ordered to register as a sex offender for life, FOX 5 San Diego reported.
The lawsuit argued that the district ignored red flags about Sutton’s behavior. Key to their case was an expert’s testimony that the school district’s policies for preventing sexual abuse of students “did not meet the standard,” the Union-Tribune reported.
The financial award also reflected the jury’s consideration of the emotional damage and need for counseling the student experienced after Sutton was arrested, the report said.
Defense attorneys denied that district employees were negligent and said they responded appropriately once they realized that Sutton had been abusing the student.
In a previous case in 2009, a female student was awarded $1.25 million – of which the San Diego district had to pay $650,000 – after a male teacher was found to have molested a female student.