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Brian Panish: Moreno Valley school district hit with $135-million verdict in molestation case

Los Angeles Times, by Ian James, Staff Writer

OCT. 11, 2023 5 AM PT

A jury has issued a $135-million verdict in a molestation case involving a middle school teacher, finding that negligence by the Moreno Valley Unified School District was largely responsible for the abuse two students suffered.

The jury in Riverside County Superior Court found the school district was 90% responsible for the damages, while former teacher Thomas Lee West was 10% responsible. That leaves the district with responsibility for $121.5 million in damages.

In their lawsuit, the two former students said they were repeatedly sexually abused by West from 1996 through 1999 at Vista Heights Middle School. They said West had previously faced charges of molesting his foster son, and that the district’s officials knew, or should have known, that West posed a threat to students.

Now adults, the two alleged in their suit that the school district fostered “an environment for its students to fall victim to sexual abuse, molestation and harassment.”

West was arrested on felony molestation charges in 2003. According to court documents, he was found guilty of 10 felony counts of child molestation in 2006.

“The jury recognized the severe and profound effect that this long-term abuse had,” said Brian Panish, a lawyer representing one of the former students.

“I’m proud of the plaintiffs for coming forward and bringing this case and facing the school district in court,” Panish said. “It was hard, but they had a lot of courage.”

As for the school district, Panish said, there were many “red flags” for years, but school officials didn’t do anything about it.

“This is totally preventable, 100%. It should have never happened. They should have protected the kids,” Panish said. “I think that it shows that this systematic problem is affecting a lot of people, and we’ve got to do more and more to make sure this doesn’t happen again anymore.”

Lawyers for the school district and West could not be reached to comment about the verdict. A representative of the school district didn’t respond to an email from The Times requesting comments.

The decision follows a recent case in which the Moreno Valley Unified School District reached a $27-million settlement with the family of Diego Stolz, a 13-year-old boy who was bullied, beaten and fatally injured in an attack by two students in 2019 at Landmark Middle School.

Following the settlement, the school district’s Board of Education voted last month to fire the superintendent, Martinrex Kedziora, without cause. The board appointed Robert Verdi, the district’s chief human resources officer, as interim superintendent.

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