Elementary School Didn't Protect Third-Grader from Janitor's 'Extreme' Sexual Abuse, $10M Lawsuit Alleges
A young victim of sexual abuse is suing his school board and two of its employees in federal court, for $10 million, alleging they failed to protect him and other students from a sexual predator who worked as a janitor at their school, PEOPLE confirms.
The lawsuit claims the school board in Russell County, Virginia, and two principals at the district’s Lebanon Elementary School in Lebanon, Virginia — Phillip Henley and Kimberly Hooker — “turned a blind eye” to “blatant sexual misconduct” against the victim and other male students.
The victim is identified as John Doe in the complaint, which was filed on Dec. 8.
The suit also names Bobby Gobble as a defendant. Gobble, 42, was Lebanon Elementary’s former head janitor and was sentenced in 2014 to 100 years in prison after confessing to sexually abusing four boys ages 14 or younger over a four-and-a-half-year period, according to court records obtained by PEOPLE.
Gobble was reportedly arrested in Februrary 2014. He later pleaded guilty to 150 counts of aggravated sexual battery, forcible sodomy and attempted forcible sodomy and is serving a sentence of at least 70 years, according to records.
The Russell County schools superintendent declined to comment to PEOPLE, citing the pending litigation. Neither Henley nor Hooker, who both worked as principals at Lebanon, could immediately be reached. It was not clear if either still worked as a principal in the district.
Attorney Jim Guynn, who is representing the school board and its employees, did not respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment. But he told the Washington Post, “I haven’t seen anything that indicates to me that any of the defendants had any idea that this was going on.”
Not so, according to the boy’s lawyer.
Monica Beck tells PEOPLE the defendants allegedly left John Doe and the other victims vulnerable to Gobble’s abuse — which, according to the lawsuit, was predicated on behavior such as Gobble spending long periods of time alone with children and appearing “obsessive” and “overly friendly.”
At one point John Doe lived with Gobble, though he had no legal custody of the boy. Henley, the school principal at the time, assumed Gobble was a relative or friend, the suit claims.
“The school had a duty to protect John Doe and other students from Gobble’s sexual abuse,” Beck says. “The school, which is federally funded, is obligated to comply with a federal law called Title IX, which prohibits sexual discrimination, which includes sexual assault.”
But school officials did not follow Title IX’s requirements, the boy’s suit claims, causing him to suffer “extreme and severe emotional distress” including fright, horror, grief, shame and psychological trauma.
Escalating Abuse: ‘The School Trusted Gobble’
Gobble began sexually abusing John Doe in 2011, when the boy was in third grade at Lebanon Elementary, the complaint states. The sexual violence was “so extreme in degree that it went beyond all possible bounds of decency.”
The abuse continued for almost two years, when Gobble convinced the boy’s grandmother, who had legal custody of him and his three siblings during the 2011-2012 school year, to allow the boy to come live with him, according to the suit.
As for why the child’s family allowed him to live with Gobble, Beck says: “My understanding is that the grandmother trusted Gobble because the school trusted Gobble.”
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The boy lived with Gobble at his home for more than a year before moving to Gobble’s sister’s house, the complaint states. Gobble slept with John Doe, bought him extravagant gifts, drove him to and from school and took him on trips across state lines, during which he sexually abused the boy.
Gobble threatened to kill or harm the boy and his mother if he told anyone about the abuse, the complaint states.
Henley, who was Lebanon’s principal when John Doe was in third grade, knew that Gobble had the child stay at his house and took him on trips, the complaint alleges. Yet “he failed to take any action to protect John from Gobble’s sexual abuse.”
In the spring of 2013, when John Doe was a fourth-grader, Kimberly Hooker, who became the school’s principal, learned that a complaint had been filed with the Department of Social Services about Gobble sexually abusing the child, the lawsuit says.
The complaint was later dismissed as lacking evidence, after both the boy and Gobble denied any inappropriate behavior. Hooker was present when both the child and Gobble were interviewed by DDS, according to the complaint.
“Although DSS found the case unsubstantiated, Principal Hooker — who knew Gobble spent vast amounts of money on and time with John, both during and outside of school hours — failed to undertake any independent investigation, monitor Gobble or take any action to protect John,” the complaint alleges.
Once a school receives a report that a student is being sexually assaulted or abused, Title IX obligates that school to take action, Beck says.
“Russell County Schools did not investigate the report and took no action, other than to tell Gobble it would be a good thing if John would be in an after-school program instead of spending time with Gobble,” Beck says.
“But there is no indication that the school ever increased supervision or undertook any kind of disciplinary action against Gobble or made any effort to ensure that he wasn’t sexually abusing John.”
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The defendants allowed Gobble to remove children, including John Doe, from classrooms, failing to bring them back for long periods of time, the complaint alleges. They also allegedly allowed Gobble to be alone and unsupervised with John Doe and other children during and after school.
They failed to provide training to personnel and parents about the sexual abuse of students by school staff, the complaint claims.
The abuse against John Doe began to decrease once he left Lebanon Elementary for middle school, according to his suit.
“During the summer between fourth and fifth grade, he had less contact with Gobble because his mother was concerned,” Beck says.
Helping Other Victims
Beck says she hopes the lawsuit helps other children who are left vulnerable to sexual abuse by adults.
“With cases like this, one of the things we always hope for is justice for the individual plaintiff, and that schools make sure that their administrators and staff are trained in Title IX and recognize signs of sexual abuse and receive grooming techniques that adult perpetrators use to gain the trust of children,” she says.
“Often times, predators like Mr. Gobble will threaten children and frighten them so they are afraid to report the abuse.”
Gobble’s lawyer could not be reached for comment.
“When there is a report, we want to make sure educators know what their obligations are and what the steps [are] to take to make sure a student is protected and that other students are not subjected to the same abuse,” Beck says.
“I also hope that this case helps initiate a national discussion on schools’ obligations in keeping our children safe from sex harassment and sex assault in school.”