A 19-year-old woman who was sexually abused for years by a Cypress High School teacher was awarded $2.5 million in damages by an Orange County jury that found both the teacher and the Anaheim Union High School District liable for the abuse.
The verdict followed a months-long trial that tested the bounds of a school district's liability when one of its teachers molests a student. The jury on Thursday found that the former teacher, Clifford Scofield, 57, was primarily liable but also found the district negligent for failing to prevent the abuse.
"Both the teachers and the district fully refused to take responsibility at all--ever," said Sharon L. Cusic, the attorney for Desiree Fritz, who was a 13-year-old junior high school student when the abuse started. "It's a very just verdict. The district turned its head when the molestation started."
Scofield, a once-popular science teacher and track coach who pleaded guilty to 19 counts of child molestation and served 13 months in prison, did not present a defense at the trial. He would not comment Friday.
He has been ordered to pay 65% of Fritz's award as well as 65% of the $640,000 awarded to Fritz's parents. The district was ordered to pay 35% of the awards--a total of about $1.1 million.
The abuse took place over four years, starting at Lexington Junior High School and continuing at Cypress High School, where Scofield had transferred to be close to Fritz, Cusic said. Scofield, who lives in Costa Mesa, was arrested when Fritz's mother discovered love letters he had written to the teenager. The letters described an ongoing relationship between the two involving sexual intercourse.
Cusic said school officials should have been aware of "red flags" signaling the abuse. She said several teachers and a school principal saw them together in a car, which is a violation of school policy. Teachers also saw Scofield walk away alone with Fritz, then 14, while at a summer camp, Cusic said.
Administrators for the high school district were at a training seminar Friday and could not be reached for comment. School board President Harald Martin said he was stunned by the size of the award. Last he had heard, he said, a settlement was in the works.
Martin said he is not sure whether the district will appeal the decision. Had the district known of the molestation, he said, steps would have been taken to end it.
The situation "was one of those cases that nobody knew about until years later," he said. "We have a grave responsibility for taking care of students and protecting them. But sometimes, something like this happens, and you don't know about it and the victim doesn't come forward."
For the district to be expected to prevent molestation it is not aware of would be onerous, he said. "If both parties kept it secret, . . . I think there's some culpability on the victim's part."
Cusic said Fritz has suffered permanent psychological damage because of the abuse. She said the teen attempted suicide three times and cannot continue her education because she cannot bear to be in a school environment.
"She was destroyed," Cusic said. "Scofield got 13 months in prison. She got life."
While the award is believed to be the largest of its kind in Orange County, it is not the largest in California.
In April, a jury awarded $10.8 million to the family of a LaVerne boy molested at age 14 by a teacher who coached the boy's soccer team. In that case, the Bonita Unified School District was held liable for 45% of the verdict because of the jury's conclusion that the district ignored indications that the teacher could be a danger to children.
On a split decision last year, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for school districts to be forced to pay damages to molested students if officials know of the abuse and fail to stop it.
Ron Wenkart, general counsel for the Orange County Department of Education, said it is unusual for a district to be held responsible in such a case. Anaheim may have strong grounds for an appeal unless there is clear proof that a principal or other district administrator knew of the molestation, he said.
"Normally, when districts know, they do a thorough investigation, they talk to everyone involved and they take disciplinary action against the employee. We usually get law enforcement involved as well," Wenkart said.
"The Supreme Court said last year that a district can be held liable if a management employee knows of the misconduct," he said. "Generally, another teacher or students knowing about it isn't sufficient. It has to be a management employee . . . in a position to take action against the employee."
Times staff writer Daniel Yi contributed to this report.