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Court Warns of Campus 'Police State'

A $640,000 award to the parents of a teen who had a secret affair with her teacher in O.C. is overturned. Jurists cite possible 'reign of terror.'

October 25, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Parents who sue schools over student-faculty relationships threaten to turn campuses into a "police state," a state appellate court warned in overturning a $640,000 award to the parents of a former student who had a three-year affair with her Orange County teacher.

In overturning the award, the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana said the parents of the former Cypress teen expected too much from the Anaheim Union High School District.

The affair between the 13-year-old and her 51-year-old instructor was discovered when love letters were found in the girl's bedroom by her mother.

The teacher ultimately spent 13 months in prison and the school district was ordered to pay $2.3 million to the student, a judgment upheld by the court. But the award to the parents, who argued that the district failed to detect the romance, was overturned.

If school districts are expected to uncover relationships between instructors and students, the court ruled, campus camaraderie would suffer, student gifts to teachers would be viewed with suspicion and a simple hug or pat on the back would have to be reported.

"It would be a reign of terror.... Teachers would be forced to be spies on their fellow teachers, with pain of discipline if they didn't," the opinion stated.

"Student-teacher camaraderie would not only suffer, but would have to be virtually outlawed. No hugging, ever. No being in the same room alone, ever. No unchaperoned rides in a teacher's car, ever. No gifts, ever."

But an attorney for the girl's parents said the ruling could represent a ominous swing of the pendulum in the responsibility that courts expect of school districts.

"My concern and what I'm alarmed of is [the opinion] gives free license for teachers to turn their heads to inappropriate behavior by teachers," said attorney Sharon Cusic, who represented the family at trial. Cusic asked that the family not be named, to avoid identifying the victim.

While the appeals court made its ruling last month, the opinion was first published Wednesday at the request of school districts statewide.

The case revolves around a relationship between the former middle-school student and a former teacher, Clifford Scofield, from 1995 to 1997.

Scofield, who lived in Costa Mesa, transferred to Cypress High School, which the girl attended, and taught science and was a track coach. He pleaded guilty to 19 counts of child molestation.

A key factor in the case was that neither the student nor the teacher told anyone about the relationship. The girl complained to no one, according to court records, and kept it secret from close friends.

Harald G. Martin, a Anaheim Union district trustee from 1994 to 2002, hailed the decision, saying that one of the most frustrating things to understand as a trustee was how the district could be held liable to parents and victim when it was a secret relationship.

"Nobody knew about this until it came out and that's one thing I'm still frustrated about," Martin said. "If there was something told to the district and its employees and it failed to act or if an overt action was taken by [Scofield] that no one responded to, then the district should pay."

Anaheim Union Supt. Craig Haugen said that had district employees known of the situation, they would have taken action.

The case, school officials said, represents a double-edged sword that educators and administrators face daily. Schools must protect students, yet must also provide an environment that helps create relationships that stimulate the children and help them develop as adults.

"We know that you cannot work with kids in a high school without developing some mutual respect and trust," Haugen said. "And research tells us that a relationship with an adult role model is one of the best points of academic achievement."

The girl's parents and attorneys said they were alarmed by the decision.

Robert W. Scott, the family's appellate lawyer, said the court's ruling supports a scenario in which teachers have a duty to report such incidents but are "excused because they're clueless."

Scott also said the court "invaded the province" of the lower court's jury that found the district culpable. He said he plans to appeal. Scott and Cusic argued that school employees knew about the relationship but did little or nothing to prevent it.

In court documents, they cited several examples when school staff saw them together in a van, a rendezvous during a school camping trip in Yosemite and when Scofield bought a $50 Victoria's Secret gift card for the girl's 17th birthday.

But the appellate court ruled there was little evidence to verify that school personnel knew what was going on. "Neither the district nor its teachers can be morally blameworthy for not assuming the worst about the relationship," the ruling said.

In fact, having teachers spy on each other and report mere suspicions of inappropriate fraternization would be a worse danger to a school environment, the ruling said.

According to the court's opinion: "Under our facts here, a policy of prevention of this sort of harm would require turning the culture at every high school in the district into a virtual police state."

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