Court to Hear Molestation-Case Issues
November 1, 2007
CANTON: The parents of two children molested by a chess coach will have their case heard by the state’s highest court.
At issue: Whether school districts and other government agencies should be excused for acts of negligence that occur off their grounds or property.
In 2005, the parents sued Massillon City Schools, saying volunteer coach John H. Smith repeatedly molested their children during after-school chess classes.
Smith started teaching chess at York and Franklin schools in 1997 through the Stark County Chess Federation.
The district didn’t conduct a criminal background check on Smith, who had spent two years in prison for gross sexual imposition. He stopped coaching during the 2000-01 school year after officials learned of his past.
Acting on tips, police opened an investigation and Smith admitted to fondling two of his students. He pleaded guilty in 2002 to gross sexual imposition charges and was sentenced to four years in prison.
The parents, suing under pseudonyms, argued that Smith was a school employee and the chess club was a school-sponsored activity.
But the school didn’t have a contract with Smith, nor did it pay him. And the fondling occurred off school grounds.
The district argued that is was immune from liability, and former Common Please Judge Sara Loi ruled in its favor. The decision was upheld earlier this year by the 5th District Court of Appeals, which said the school district wasn’t responsible for what happened off school property.
Ohio Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to look at the case.
Massillon Superintendent Fred Blosser declined to comment on the case, citing the advice of the district’s attorneys.
Local attorneys Brian R. Wilson and Don M. Benson represent the parents.
Wilson said the district shouldn’t be able to stand behind a shield of immunity when the relationship between the children and Smith was fostered at school.
“Something has to give here,” Wilson said. “I can’t think of a worse combination than small children and a convicted child molester.”
The Supreme Court also agreed to hear a Stark County case involving the imposition of post-prison obligations on a defendant after the initial sentencing hearing.