Vista Heights Middle 6526d4664b1dd

Jury awards $135 million to 2 students molested in the 1990s at a middle school in California

Oct. 11, 2023
The two students were assaulted between 1996 and 1999 by a teacher at Vista Heights Middle School in the Moreno Valley district.

A jury in California has awarded $135 million to two students 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 Los Angeles Times reports that the Riverside County jury found the district was 90% responsible for the damages and former teacher Thomas Lee West was 10% responsible. That leaves the district with responsibility for $121.5 million in damages.

The two former students said in the lawsuit that they were repeatedly sexually abused by West from 1996 through 1999 at Vista Heights Middle School. The suit said that 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 former students contended in their suit that the Moreno Valley 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 in 2006 of 10 felony counts of child molestation.

“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.

The school district issued a statement:

“The Moreno Valley Unified School District deeply regrets what happened to these individuals. Although it happened under a previous administration over 27 years ago, the district understands the lifelong impact of these traumatic experiences. The district knows that it can never undo the past, the hurt and anguish suffered by these individuals. We truly hope they continue to recover from these incidents.”

The verdict comes less than a month after the Moreno Valley district reached a $27 million settlement with the family of a 13-year-old boy who was bullied, beaten and fatally injured in a 2019 attack by two students at Landmark Middle School. Following the settlement, the school board fired the superintendent, Martinrex Kedziora.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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