School Sex Abuse Claim Revived in Delaware

     (CN) – Jurors could find that a religious school was grossly negligent in failing to prevent a teacher from sexually abusing a student in his class who was also his foster child, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled.
     In a complaint against Fairwinds Church and Fairwinds Christian School under the Child Victim’s Act, Kimberly Hecksher alleges that she was a student at Fairwinds from 1985 to 1990 when she was abused by Ed Sterling, her foster father and a teacher at the school.
     Hecksher also alleged that Sterling’s wife, Sandy, who also taught at the school, witnessed the abuse at home and on school grounds and said nothing.
     Though the trial court in New Castle County granted Fairwinds summary judgment, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed 4-1 last month.
     The decision notes that the Sterlings took Hecksher in when the girl was 12 in the fall of 1984 because Hecksher’s drug-addicted mother had been struggling to care for her. Hecksher’s mother allegedly chose the Sterlings because she thought they offered a “stable Christian influence.”
     Hecksher says she was 13 when Sterling began to abuse her between one and five times a week. Sterling allegedly sometimes gave the girl her extra credit in math, Spanish or Bible class in exchange for sexual favors.
     Sandy witnessed her husband orally raping Hecksher in the girl’s bedroom and fondling her in the school gymnasium, according to the complaint.
     The May 21 decision reviving Herksher’s case quotes testimony from other former Fairwinds students about Sterling’s reputation.
     “He is a pervert,” said Pam Arrowood. “All kinds of comments. The way he looked at girls. Just very uncomfortable.”
     “He stared at my chest and made comments that I smelled good,” said Stephanie Duke. “I did not want to be alone with him.”
     Sterling refused to discuss Hecksher’s allegations in his deposition.
     The Delaware Supreme Court concluded that an issue of material fact exists as to whether the school was grossly negligent for failing to act on knowledge of the abuse and to report it to the authorities.
     “Hecksher’s testimony at her deposition that Sandy knew about the abuse and failed to report it was by itself sufficient to defeat Fairwinds’ motion for summary judgment,” Chief Justice Leo Strine Jr. wrote for the majority.
     The court found that Hecksher sufficiently connected her abuse and the school to bring the case against Fairwinds to trial.
     “Because a reasonable juror could conclude that Sandy was acting within the scope of her employment when the allegedly learned about and witnessed Sterling’s abuse of Hecksher, there is a basis for trial on both of Hecksher’s claims,” Strine added.
     It was improper for the court to find that Sandy’s knowledge of the abuse was outside the scope of her employment since that analysis hinges on the assumption that she failed to report the abuse out of loyalty to her husband.
     “We decline to absolve an employer for vicarious liability when an employer has knowingly hired family or staff with strong personal ties to each other,” Strine wrote.
     Justice James Vaughn Jr. wrote in dissent that Hecker’s evidence is not enough to create an issue of material fact.
     “While it is true that the staff of Fairwinds had a statutory duty to report sexual abuse, it does not follow that Fairwinds should be found grossly negligent merely because one staff member breached that duty without the administration’s knowledge,” he wrote.

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