Should a Nebraska school have used MySpace to peg a teacher as a potential rapist?
As a 14-year-old freshman at Bloomfield Community Schools in Knox County, Nebraska, Caitlin Marvin was struggling in math. A teacher at the school, John Hoffman, offered to tutor her. Hoffman, who was in his late 20s, initially tutored her at school but then shifted the lessons to his home. And the lessons shifted from math tutoring to sexual sessions, at least 20 episodes of “physical, digital, genital and oral, sexual contact” over a five month period according to a court complaint [PDF].
In March 2009, Marvin, who had become depressed and withdrawn, told her mother about the sex with her teacher. Hoffman was arrested and pleaded no contest. He was sentenced to 18 to 25 years in October.
But the case is not over. Now Marvin’s parents are suing the school for hiring a sexual predator. They say that the school should have checked out Hoffman’s MySpace page and realized he was obsessed with sex, in part because his name there was “John Pecker Hoffman.”
In their complaint, they say:
In at least his MySpace publication, Hoffman named himself “John Pecker Hoffman” and charged his self description on his MySpace page with sexual allusions, innuendo, and references…. Had Bloomfield reasonably investigated Hoffman upon hiring him, and upon rehiring him annually, it would have discovered these matters and would not have hired him. If Bloomfield knew these things and hired Hoffman anyway, it did so negligently. These facts were all sufficient to impart notice to a reasonably prudent school district employer of Hoffman’s predatory sexual interests and predilections and propensity for sexual misconduct, but they were not reasonably observed or discovered.
They also say that Bloomfield should have realized that Hoffman was “immature, unprofessional and had bad judgment” when he made significant changes to his appearance including, “tattoos, pierced body parts and a ‘Mohawk’ hair cut.”
I can’t imagine this lawsuit will get very far, though I’m sure jurors would be sympathetic to the statutory rape of Caitlin Marvin. Suggesting that people shouldn’t be hired as teachers because they have tattoos and piercings is not something the legal system would endorse. The MySpace question is a trickier one.
I’ve written before about the proposition by privacy advocates that it be illegal for employers to check job applicants’ Facebook profiles. Some say that it should be like a credit check, that employers have to get your permission before they go searching.
Even if the school had done that in this case, could they really have not offered a job to Hoffman because of a silly MySpace name? If they had, Hoffman likely would have had a valid complaint about his rights being violated.
As I read the Marvins’ complaint, I wondered about the role of the parents. They allowed their daughter to go to a teacher’s home to be tutored without performing a background check on the guy. That is the beauty of the Internet and social networking sites. The Marvins could have checked out Hoffman’s MySpace page as easily as the school could have. And then found their daughter a new math tutor stat.
The Marvins are seeking $500,000 in damages and are represented by David Domina, a trial attorney with an impressive record.
Meanwhile, parents everywhere may want to get their kids’ class schedules and start Facebook/MySpace stalking their teachers.