A Spokane judge Friday awarded $11,000 to a Spokane family for the “wrongful” conduct of a former Central Valley School District teacher who made an allegedly lewd remark to a student three years ago.
After a four-day bench trial, Spokane Superior Court Judge Michael Donohue ruled that the school district and teacher Tony Benson shared liability for causing emotional harm to a 13-year-old student in his physical education class in 1994.
The child’s parents, Larry and Betty Ford of Spokane, sought $150,000 in damages from the school and Benson, 42.
The Fords said their daughter, a seventh-grader in Benson’s physical education class, was grabbed by the neck after she told him she wanted a pacifier.
The girl, now a Spokane Valley high school sophomore, testified that Benson pulled her head toward his groin and made a lewd remark.
Benson insisted he was joking with the student and never uttered words that she considered sexually offensive.
Based on testimony from other students, Donohue ruled that the remark probably happened.
But he doubted that it was meant in a sexual context, and for that reason, said it did not amount to sexual harassment.
But Donohue also decided the incident involved a teacher acting in a classroom setting. On that account, the district shares some liability since state law holds employers accountable for acts their employees commit in performing their jobs.
“Even if the remark was thoughtless banter, it had the capacity to hurt,” Donohue said.
The district could have faced much harsher damages if the judge had determined that school officials should have done a better job of supervising Benson or removing him from the classroom on the basis of earlier complaints about his teaching.
“The district is pleased because the judge exonerated it of any wrongdoing in the area of hiring, retention and supervision (of Benson),” said CV attorney Chris Kerley.
Benson is now a high school teacher with the Kent, Wash., school district. But officials there have placed him on leave pending an inquiry as to whether he falsified his job application.
Benson taught for 12 years in the CV district until a series of conflicts with parents and some teachers prompted the district to fire him. He appealed that action and after accepting a $30,000 settlement, moved away.
Last year he also lost a teaching job with a West Side tribal school.
The Fords’ attorney, Russell Van Camp, said the judgment meant two victories for his clients. “One, it was more money than they offered us, and two, he won’t be allowed to continue teaching in the state,” Van Camp said.
Benson’s attorney, Michael McMahon, disagreed, saying Donohue’s verdict would not affect his client’s ability to teach.
The judge carefully spelled out that Benson acted “thoughtlessly” on one occasion and avoided making any other statements about the rest of his teaching career, McMahon pointed out.
Benson had no comment after Donohue’s verdict. The Fords also left the courtroom declining to comment on the judgment.
The $11,000 was composed of $1,000 for counseling the Fords’ daughter has undergone and plans to continue, plus $10,000 for general damages.