PHILADELPHIA (CN) - Pennsylvania school officials must face claims that they ignored signs that a teacher - now in prison for child sexual abuse - would assault second-graders, a federal judge ruled.
Paul Hochschwender was "formally admonished" by a Delaware County school for groping girls when he taught there from 1993 to 2000, the complaint states. Yet the Southeast Delco School District, in the same county, hired Hochschwender as a fifth-grade teacher at Darby Township School in 2006 without asking why he had left the earlier job.
Delaware County is southwest of Philadelphia.
Delco proceeded to cover up for Hochschwender when a student complained that he "touched her shoulders," "whispered in her ears," and "placed her hands on his lap" in 2006-07, according to the original complaint.
When then-Principal Michael A.P. Jordan reported a second student complaint about Hochschwender to Assistant Superintendent Jeffrey Ryan in 2011-12, Ryan merely transferred Hochschwender to teach "vulnerable" second graders, the complaint states. The Doe and Roe parents say Hochschwender inappropriately touched many students, including their daughters, on multiple occasions during the 2013-14 school year.
Hochschwender's conduct included, but was not limited to, "touching and placing his hands on [L's] vaginal area, buttocks and legs," her parents claim.
Hochschwender, 56, pleaded no contest in January to indecent assault, institutional sexual assault, and corruption of minors.
The parents sued Hochschwender, Jordan, Ryan, Superintendent Stephen Butz, and the school district in Federal Court in 2013.
In August this year, Hochschwender was sentenced to two years in prison.
The families seek punitive damages for civil rights violations, assault and battery, emotional distress, and long-term mental health treatment for the teacher's "outrageous abuse."
The district, Ryan and Butz sought dismissal, which U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh partially denied on Tuesday.
"Despite knowledge of the need to act to prevent abuse and knowledge of abuse allegations, school officials following the school's established custom of inaction repeatedly failed to act to protect students," McHugh wrote. "Plaintiffs argue the district's failure to implement more rigorous training and oversight amounts to deliberate indifference that caused plaintiffs' constitutional injuries. Whether plaintiffs are able to produce evidence of such a policy or custom and its effects will be resolved at a later stage of this litigation, but I agree that plaintiffs have sufficiently stated the required elements of their Monell claim."
McHugh said the state-created danger claim against Ryan is sufficiently pleaded.
"Plaintiffs have asserted Ryan learned of allegations of abuse and transferred Hochschwender to teach younger students, without sufficient safeguards to prevent further harm to children," McHugh wrote. "It is entirely foreseeable that such an ill-considered transfer could lead to more abuse of students, and a reasonable jury could certainly find that exposing even more vulnerable students to the risk of abuse at the hands of a teacher is shocking."
But the judge dismissed that claim as to Butz and the district, who were not personally involved in causing the plaintiffs' injuries.
"Should a reasonable school official know that exposing young children to a risk of molestation violates their rights?" McHugh asked. "To ask the question is to answer it."
Jerry Williams, an attorney for the families, said in an email that they are "gratified by the court's decision."
"The litigation can now proceed, and, ultimately, the evidence will determine the outcome," Williams added.
James Famiglio, Hochschwender's attorney, said the ruling will have "limited effect" on the teacher's civil defense.
Hochschwender's criminal defense attorney did not return requests for comment.