A former Central Valley School District teacher on Tuesday adamantly denied sexually harassing a 13-year-old girl in a physical education class three years ago.
Tony Benson, who was fired in 1994 after run-ins with students and other teachers, insisted he did nothing improper while teaching a seventh-grade class one morning in May 1994.
Benson and the student testified during the opening day of the civil trial in Spokane County Superior Court.
The trial, expected to last until Thursday, stems from a negligence lawsuit filed by the girl’s parents, Betty and Larry Ford of Spokane.
In his testimony, Benson, 42, disputed the student’s account of the alleged harassment, which she said took place on an athletic field at Greenacres Junior High.
During questioning by the family’s attorney, Russell Van Camp, the girl said Benson grabbed her in a headlock, pulled her head toward his groin and made a lewd comment.
That never happened, Benson testified. He said there was nothing more than innocent joking and banter between himself and the students.
That morning, he told the students to run a mile. When most finished, several complained about feeling tired, he said.
“I told them, ‘I need to talk to your parents about getting you pacifiers,”’ Benson said.
The 13-year-old girl said she wanted a pacifier. Benson said he didn’t grab the student by the neck, nor did he make any lewd remarks to her or other students.
That incident, along with several other allegations of misconduct, prompted the district to fire Benson in November 1994. After appealing the firing, he received a $30,000 settlement from the district and moved away.
He is now on administrative leave from a high school teaching job in Kent, Wash. His problems in the Spokane Valley are the focus of a state investigation that could result in the loss of his teaching certificate.
Benson has previously stated that he was targeted by some Central Valley district employees and parents because he is black.
Van Camp plans to call other students from the same PE class as witnesses today.
Their side of the story will be challenged by several other students who will say no sexual remarks were made, defense attorney Michael McMahon said in his opening statement.
The Fords are seeking unspecified monetary damages, claiming school officials were negligent in hiring and supervising Benson.
The family also is seeking damages from Benson, arguing the alleged harassment caused lasting emotional and psychological harm to their daughter, who now attends a Spokane-area high school.
After the girl reported the incident, classmates who like Benson teased, shoved and taunted her, Betty Ford told the jury Tuesday. She said her daughter was forced to transfer to another school.
McMahon challenged the girl’s mother about the effects of the alleged incident.
“Isn’t it true you never suggested she see a counselor until this year?” McMahon asked.
“No, I suggested it,” Ford replied, “but she said she was not interested then.” The teenager agreed to see a counselor earlier this year, after she took part in a second deposition.
She was “very upset” during both depositions, partly because Benson sat nearby, Ford testified.
During the first deposition in 1995, the girl said she saw Benson place his hand under the table and make an obscene gesture in her family’s direction, Ford said.
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