(L.A. Times) – A former student who fathered a child with a one time Redlands schoolteacher convicted of having sex with him and two other students will receive a $6-million settlement from the school district, officials said Friday.
Vince Finaldi, an attorney for the former high school student, said the egregious conduct of Redlands Unified School administrators in the case warranted what may be one of the largest single-victim sex abuse settlements by a public agency.
“The size of this settlement represents the gravity of the damage done to this young victim and his family and it also highlights the extreme malfeasance and neglect by school officials who turned a blind eye to the criminal conduct of a teacher and failed to protect a student,” Finaldi said.
Laura Whitehurst, 29, was arrested in July 2013 and charged with 41 felony counts of unlawful sex acts that could have meant up to 29 years in prison. She pleaded guilty to four counts of unlawful sexual intercourse and two counts of oral copulation with a person under 18 involving three boys while teaching at Citrus Valley and Redlands high schools.
As part of a plea bargain, she was sentenced to a year in jail and released after six months. She remains on probation and is required to register as a sex offender. She shares custody of the child with the former student, who is now 21, according to his attorneys.
In the lawsuit, attorneys for the former student alleged that school officials knew of his relationship with Whitehurst and failed to warn his family. The suit also claimed that a teaching colleague of Whitehurst’s was aware of the relationship and that school officials even questioned Whitehurst and the student when she became pregnant.
School district officials said they were admitting no wrongdoing by settling the lawsuit and blamed Whitehurst alone.
District spokesman Tom DeLapp said the district is “not pleased with this outcome” but settled “this tragic case once and for all so we can move forward.”
“We felt there could be serious damage to the reputation of a very fine school district if the plaintiff’s lawyers were allowed to drag the district and its employees through the mud all over again,” DeLapp said. “In the long run, $6 million is high, but it could have been much higher if this had been left to an empathetic jury in another city looking past the facts to find a financial scapegoat for the unprofessional, criminal actions of one individual.”
The former student who fathered Whitehurst’s baby said the relationship started in 2012 when he was 16 and lasted nearly a year. He told authorities Whitehurst began driving him home from school functions and spending long hours with him. On a trip to Disneyland, she grabbed his hand and told him she wanted to kiss him. Shortly after the trip, she and the boy began having repeated sexual intercourse at her apartment. Whitehurst gave birth to their child in June 2013, with the boy in attendance.
He said Whitehurst gave him alcohol and told him it was a “miracle pregnancy” because she did not believe she could get pregnant. She even gave him a Bible on his 17th birthday and would take him to church, he said.
In asking a judge to reject the plea bargain with prosecutors in 2013, the student said, “Physically, I feel sick to my stomach thinking about the manipulation I was subjected to.”
John Manly, another attorney for the former student, said district employees failed to report the abuse to authorities as required by state law.
“There was a picture of her in the birthing suite circulated to people at the school with the boy,” Manly said.” The principal wrote an email about the photo.”
According to a Redlands police search warrant served shortly after Whitehurst’s arrest, the school district began investigating the accusations but “failed to report suspected child abuse as mandated” to police or social workers until six weeks later on July 1, 2013.
Supt. Lori Rhodes has said the district received the first credible information about a possible relationship on July 1 when the teen’s mother reported it to school officials, who then immediately called the police. Rhodes said that the pair in May had denied the relationship and provided plausible explanations for their association.
School officials insist that the only wrongdoing was by Whitehurst. No one in the district was charged with any offense.
“Ms. Whitehurst made a conscious effort to deceive and circumvent the standards and policies she was trained to uphold,” DeLapp said.
The settlement follows a $505,000 payout in an alleged sexual abuse case involving a teacher and student in 2013. The district also faces a legal claim from a 16-year-old alleged victim of a math teacher recently charged with sexually abusing her.