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Attorney says district failed to protect students from predatory teacher
Families consider suing South St. Paul Public Schools
Families of the victims of the late Aric Babbitt, 40, and his husband, Matthew Deyo, 36, have retained the law firm of Jeff Anderson and Associates to sue South St. Paul Public Schools. Babbitt was a longtime teacher at Lincoln Elementary School; he and Deyo were accused of sexually assaulting numerous teenage boys.
In an interview last week, Jeff Anderson said his firm was initially hired to represent a victim and his family, but that has since grown to include multiple families.
Anderson said his law office completed its own investigation, talked to a number of witnesses and reviewed the police investigation into the case involving Babbitt and Deyo having sexual contact with eight underage boys.
“We discerned that the school district had seemed to have failed to have done what they could and should have to discerned there was a danger,” Anderson said. “Thus, [the law firm] made the decision, and this [first] family did too, to give the school district a notice of claim.
A notice of claim is a precursor to a lawsuit. If the lawsuit is filed, it could go to federal or state court. Because the lawsuit would be against an educational institute, it could be considered a Title IX sexual violence case and make its way through the federal courts, Anderson said. Or it could be brought to a state court arguing the school district was negligent.
Anderson said it is not known what court the case will go to if it moves forward.
Anderson said the notice of claim was filed because the parents want to make it publicly known that looking back, they believe the school district didn’t handle the case properly, starting with the opening of the investigation.
“How [the district] treated them and the families was less than satisfactory. They were unhappy about what happened to their child, what happened to other kids and how the school district conducted itself.”
Amy Mace, attorney for the South St. Paul district, said notices of claims were received on Nov. 4, 2016, and Jan. 26. She said the district denies any liability in connection with the alleged criminal acts of Babbitt, who was a fourth-grade teacher and allegedly targeted his former students.
Mace said the school district conducted its own investigation, which was separate from that of the law enforcement investigation. Because the data from the investigation is classified as private personal data under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, she said the district is prohibited from disclosing information related to its investigation into the matter.
Anderson said it seems the school district anticipates a lawsuit will be filed, because it reported the notice of claims to the media before the claims were filed.
“I think their own investigation probably revealed to them some deficiencies in how they handled Babbitt and the situation,” Anderson said.
A sordid tale
In January 2017, the South St. Paul Police Department released documents pertaining to its criminal investigation in Babbitt and Deyo.
The records indicate a 16-year-old boy and his parents went to the police on Aug. 14, 2016, to report the boy’s ongoing sexual relationship with Babbitt and Deyo. At that time, the boy turned over Polaroid photos of himself naked with Babbitt. The boy also told detectives that Babbitt was his former elementary teacher, mentor and volunteer work supervisor.
South St. Paul police said they identified more victims throughout the course of the investigation.
On Aug. 16, a search warrant was executed at Babbitt and Deyo’s South St. Paul house. During the course of the search, several computers, phones, tablets, cameras and hard drivers were confiscated.
From these items, authorities said they uncovered photos, videos and communications among Babbitt, Deyo and alleged victims.
According to the released documents, investigators called Babbitt’s mother on Aug. 22, and she said her son was missing. No one had heard from either Babbitt or Deyo since Aug. 16, when the two approached Deyo’s brother asking for a gun.
On Aug. 25, Deyo’s father, Rick, told authorities that he received a letter from the two, postmarked Aug. 21, saying they were going to end their lives on Lopez Island in Washington state.
That same day, an article was published in a local newspaper about a kayaker discovering two bodies on the island beach. The San Juan County medical examiner later identified the bodies as those of Babbitt and Deyo.
The death was ruled a murder-suicide, with Deyo killing Babbitt before turning the gun on himself.
Babbitt had been on paid leave starting Aug. 14. His father, Dana Babbitt, was superintendent of the South St. Paul school district from 2003 to 2007 and was also previously the South St. Paul High School principal.
District ignored “dangerous signals”
Anderson said what is evident is that Babbitt and Deyo were a “dangerous duo.” He asserted that as a grade-school teacher, Babbitt had begun grooming very young students for many months and years in many ways both on and off the school premises. He said Babbitt also worked hard to build trust with many of his victims’ parents.
“There were so many dangerous signals around his behavior; it’s unfortunate [the district] didn’t heed their own protocols and read the signs,” Anderson contended. “As a result, it’s our view based on our investigation that many kids were harmed that never would have been and never should have been.”
Anderson said this is a time for the school administrators and the school, as educators, to learn some lessons. This is one of the hopes Anderson has will come from “this painful saga.”
Mace said at this time no lawsuit has been filed against the district related to this matter.
Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or firstname.lastname@example.org.