Sex abuse victim sues Bloomfield schools

Steve Garrison,
Benjamin Griffith

FARMINGTON — A woman molested by former Bloomfield High School teacher Benjamin Griffith when she was his student has filed a lawsuit against the Bloomfield School District alleging negligence and civil rights violations. 

The woman, identified in the complaint as S.M., alleges in the lawsuit that the district failed to adequately investigate Griffith's background before hiring him as an English teacher in 2013. 

The woman further alleges the district ignored warning signs of Griffith's inappropriate behavior toward female students before he groped her breasts in a school computer lab in October 2014 when she was 17. 

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the Eleventh Judicial District Court. 

Griffith was charged Dec. 16, 2014, with two counts of second-degree criminal sexual contact of a minor in connection with the girl's allegations. He pleaded guilty to a fourth-degree offense on April 11 and faces up to 1 1/2 years in prison when he is sentenced later this month. 

Griffith's criminal defense attorney, Tyson Quail, could not be reached for comment Friday. 

S.M. names Griffith, the Bloomfield School District and several district employees as defendants in the lawsuit. She seeks unspecified damages on claims of civil rights violations, civil battery, equal protection under the law, negligence and sex discrimination. 

Chuck Culpepper, director of operations and assessment for the Bloomfield School District, said Friday the district has not yet been served a notice of the lawsuit, and he was therefore not aware of the allegations contained in it. 

Culpepper said the New Mexico Public Education Department's Educator Ethics Bureau conducts background checks on all teachers employed by the district. 

"You don't work here until we have the results on a background check," he said.

However, a review by the New Mexico Public Education Department in January found 81 newly hired employees in school districts and charter schools throughout New Mexico didn't have required background checks.

At the Bloomfield School District, three out of 83 of its newly hired employees were missing background checks, according to the review. 

A USA Today Network investigation in February faulted the state Public Education Department for failing to share information online about teacher disciplinary actions and for failing to communicate with other states regarding teacher misconduct. 

S.M., represented by Albuquerque attorney Shannon Kennedy, alleges in the lawsuit that Griffith was previously accused in 2005 of repeatedly punching a 16-year-old girl at a coffee shop in Las Cruces. The girl was a member of a Christian group where Griffith served as a counselor, according to the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit states the girl's father filed a police report for unlawful battery against Griffith, but he was not charged with the offense, according to court records. 

The lawsuit states the girl was sexually assaulted by Griffith a few weeks later, after she moved to Farmington to live with him and his wife. No charges were filed in connection to that alleged incident, records state, but S.M. argues the allegations should have come to light during the background check. 

"Any competent background investigation into whether to hire Defendant Griffith as a teacher would have shown that Defendant Griffith is a foreseeable danger to any teenaged female, both in public and private investigations," the lawsuit states. 

Griffith was also disciplined by the school district several times before he groped S.M., according to the lawsuit. 

Griffith was placed on administrative leave on Oct. 18, 2013, after he allegedly grabbed a student by the collar, pushed her back, and said, "I'm not afraid to slap you," according to the lawsuit.

After an investigation, Griffith was told to refrain from physical contact with students, the lawsuit states. 

Four months after that incident, Griffith was formally reprimanded by the district after he allegedly pressed down on a student's shoulders to force her to stop talking in class, according to the lawsuit. 

Bloomfield High School Principal Cody Diehl again placed Griffith on paid administrative leave and told Griffith in a letter he did not believe his teaching contract should be renewed for the 2014-2015 school year, according to the lawsuit. 

Despite the principal's opinion, Griffith's contract was renewed. 

Griffith was then accused on Oct. 15, 2014, of touching S.M.'s breasts. Griffith is expected to be sentenced for that offense on June 30.

San Juan County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien has said Griffith is eligible for a conditional discharge, which would allow him to avoid a felony conviction on his criminal record if he successfully completes a term of probation.  However, O'Brien said his office opposes the conditional discharge and will request that Griffith be ordered to register as a sex offender. 

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.