District Held Liable for Students' Molestation
In a case hinging on an apparently unprecedented application of federal law, a jury convened by a federal district judge in Tulsa, Okla., has decided that a school district must pay a total of $134,000 in damages to three boys who were sexually molested by an elementary-school teacher.
The six-member jury, in reaching its verdict Oct. 23, accepted the novel legal argument that officials of the Cleveland, Okla., district had violated the boys' right to "liberty" under the 14th Amendment's due-process clause and Section 1983 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code by failing to adequately investigate the background of the teacher before hiring him in 1981.
The teacher, Stephen Lee Epps, had pleaded guilty to a charge of sodomy in Dallas in 1972, according to lawyers involved in the Oklahoma case. He was sentenced to five years' probation, and at the completion of that term the record of the crime was expunged. District officials did not learn of the offense until after the molestation incident in 1984.
In July of that year, Mr. Epps pleaded guilty in a state trial court to four counts of lewd molestation against four of his students, three of whom later filed the federal suit. The judge sentenced him to four years in prison, then commuted his term to 30 days.
At the time Mr. Epps was hired as a teacher and basketball coach at Terlton Elementary School, there was no state law or regulation requiring Oklahoma districts to check prospective employees' backgrounds, according to Andy Kimberling, administrator of teacher certification for the state education department.
A law passed in 1985, he said, gave districts the authority to check prospective and current employees' backgrounds for prior felony convictions.
Teachers applying for state certification, he noted, are required to fill out a questionnaire in which they are asked if they have been convicted of a felony or crimes of moral terpitude within the preceding 10 years. Mr. Epps was apparently within his legal rights to answer "no" to the query because his record had been expunged, Mr. Kimberling said.
Gwendolyn Gregory, a lawyer for the National School Boards Association, said last week she was unaware of any other federal-court ruling involving the well-being of students decided on the grounds cited in the Oklahoma case.
The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from depriving persons of "life, liberty, or property" without due process of law. Federal judges and legal scholars continue to be involved in a decades-long debate over the precise boundaries of the "liberty" interest staked out by the amendment, and over what "process" is due when that right is violated.
Section 1983, a Reconstruction-era civil-rights law, permits individuals deprived of their federal constitutional or statutory rights to sue for damages.
The Cleveland district is likely to ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit to review the decision, according to its superintendent,4Charles Clayton. Such an appeal could eventually result in a precedent that would be binding beyond the jurisdiction of the Tulsa court.
The parents of three of the molested boys, expressing dissatisfaction over what they said was Mr. Epps's relatively lenient sentence, filed suit in federal district court last year seeking a total of $4.5 million in damages from the district.
According to their lawyer, Frank Zeigler, Mr. Clayton hired Mr. Epps even though the teacher's cousin had called the superintendent to warn him that her relative had once tried to molest her son.
Mr. Zeigler also claimed that during the course of Mr. Epps's employment, two parents had called the superintendent expressing concern about "rumors" that the teacher was homosexual.
The lawyer said he argued in court that the allegations should have provided Mr. Clayton with sufficient reason to check Mr. Epps's background more closely. If the investigation had been more thorough, he said, the district would have learned about the teacher's 1972 conviction.
Instead, Mr. Zeigler continued, Mr. Clayton acted with "reckless disregard" in hiring the teacher and continuing his employment, thus endangering the students' safety in violation of the 14th Amendment.
'An Outstanding Teacher'
But Mr. Clayton said last week that "we did everything we reasonably could" in checking Mr. Epps's background.
The superintendent said that after he received the call from the teacher's cousin in 1981, he immediately contacted all of the districts that had previously employed Mr. Epps.
"They all said he was an outstanding teacher," Mr. Clayton said. "He was an outstanding teacher here."
The superintendent added that when he confronted Mr. Epps about his cousin's allegation, the teacher denied it.
Mr. Clayton also acknowledged having heard rumors about the teacher's sexual orientation, but not about his criminal record in Texas, during Mr. Epps's three-year tenure.
"Yes there were rumors, but I said, 'You have to have the facts,"' he said. "We feel we were a victim of circumstances."