A jury in North Platte, Neb. awarded $1.2 million to a former student who says he was sexually abused by a teacher already accused of molesting other students.
The former student, who is now 25 and identified only as John Doe in the lawsuit, said he was sexually assaulted in 1993 by the teacher, Michael Kluck, but told no one of the assault.
In 2003, the Elwood Public School District, its insurance company and a guidance counselor pressured the former student into signing a form to keep him from suing, even after the teacher confessed to the assault, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in North Platte.
The school district, guidance counselor David Blessing and the Allied Insurance Co. were defendants in the lawsuit.
After leaving Elwood, Kluck was hired as a teacher in La Porte, Texas, where he later pleaded guilty to molesting a junior high student. He died of a heart attack in 2000.
The former Elwood student testified at this week’s trial, and it was “gut-wrenching,” said his attorney, Maren Chaloupka of Scottsbluff.
“He was profoundly damaged by this assault, and the jury recognized that the assault never should have happened,” Chaloupka said. “The jury recognized that the school saw warning signs from a perpetrator, but they chose to place convenience over protecting the child.”
A message left after hours Thursday, Aug. 9th for the Elwood School District’s attorney was not immediately returned.
Kluck was hired as a teacher and coach there in 1992 for junior and senior high school students but often interacted with younger students in town 50 miles southwest of Kearney.
In November 1992, the Gosper County Sheriff’s Department investigated a complaint that Kluck inappropriately touched female students while at school.
The investigation determined Kluck made inappropriate remarks to students, but found no evidence of physical contact.
The next year, then-Elwood Principal Richard Einspahr tape-recorded complaints from 16 students about Kluck making inappropriate contact and comments. In a written reprimand, Einspahr warned Kluck that the new allegations against him would be investigated, according to court documents.
In 1994, Einspahr told Kluck he would recommend to the school board that Kluck not be offered a contract for the following year.
When Kluck complained that his due process rights were being violated, the school entered into an agreement with him to avoid a lawsuit, according to court records.
The school “failed to take meaningful action in response to the complaints, to include terminating Kluck’s employment or, at the very least, investigating the degree to which Kluck was grooming students and attempting to identify which students Kluck was grooming,” according to the lawsuit.
In 1997, Kluck confessed to assaulting John Doe to former Gosper County Attorney Carleton Clark, now a Dawson County judge who testified at the trial that started Monday.
Clark told Blessing and the student’s parents about it. The student dropped out of school in January 1999, and charges were not filed.
Kluck signed the waiver saying he had not been molested in 2003 after being told he might otherwise have to testify in the case of another student who had sued the school district, saying Kluck had abused him. That case was settled out of court.
“Neither Blessing nor Allied’s agent advised Doe of the legal consequences of signing such an affidavit or of whether he had any other options,” according to the lawsuit.
Despite that waiver, Doe sued the district, its insurance company and Blessing in 2004, which led to this week’s trial.
The former student is now trying to get his GED while working at a maintenance job in Kearney, Chaloupka said.
“This didn’t just change my client’s life,” Chaloupka said. “If it had not been for two strong parents, it would have devastated the whole family.”
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