STOCKTON, Calif. (CN) – A nonprofit charter school system that has received financial contributions from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Oprah Winfrey has been named in a child sex-abuse lawsuit.
The child, suing through her mother, says she was molested by her art teacher last year while attending California-based Aspire Schools’ Benjamin Holt academy, and that the physical education teacher facilitated the abuse by letting them spend time alone together when she was supposed to be in gym class. She was 11 years old during the four months of the alleged abuse.
Michael Hartsock, the art teacher, is currently out on bail after he was charged with six felony counts of “grooming a minor for sexual molestation,” according to the complaint filed in San Joaquin County Superior Court.
“Aspire knew or should have known of Hartsock’s pedophilic tendaecies, or of Hartsock’s incompetence to responsibly supervise children,” the complaint states.
While Hartsock was allegedly abusing the girl, another teacher, Michael Merritt, put her in harm’s way, according to the complaint.
“Early in the fall semester of 2010 at Benjamin Holt K-12, defendant Hartsock approached defendant Merritt with a plan that would arrange for [the girl] to not attend P.E. as required, but instead be alone with defendant Hartsock,” according to the complaint. “Despite the obvious danger this would place [the girl] in, defendant Merritt agreed.
“That agreement consisted of the P.E. teacher, defendant Merritt, concealing [the girl’s] absence from class while she was kept in the possession of the art teacher, defendant Hartsock,” the complaint continues. “Merritt accomplished this by marking [the girl] present for P.E., despite her constant absence.
“Merritt gave [the girl] an ‘A+’ for the semester despite her rare or nonexistent attendance. Merritt even made a comment on [the girl’s] report card to the effect that she is a delight to have in class.”
While Hartsock had the girl alone, he touched her “between and on her legs in a sexual manner multiple times during the Fall 2010 semester,” and also her took off campus several times, without parental or school permission, according to the complaint.
The girl says she also received several calls and text messages from Hartsock, saying phrases like, “I love you.”
After the misconduct was uncovered, Aspire embarrassed the student by sending a “statement to students and parents about the ensuing investigation, which many students knew related to [her],” according to the complaint.
She and her mother seek punitive damages against both teachers and Aspire. They are represented by Trenton Diehl with Snider, Diehl and Rasmussen in Lodi.
Aspire’s website lists Hartsock and Merritt in the 2010-11 staff directory, but neither email address given for the men is still active. There is no 2011-12 staff directory on the school’s website.
A spokesperson for the school would not comment on the employment statuses of Hartsock and Merritt.
“All Ben Holt faculty and staff are committed to ensuring that our school is a safe and secure environment for all students and families,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “The health, safety and well-being of our students is our No. 1 priority. Due to ongoing litigation we cannot comment any further.”