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UPDATED: School District faces lawsuits over alleged abuse by former teacher

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BEMIDJI -- Any chance of punishment or exoneration for John Wangberg, a former longtime Bemidji teacher accused of sexually abusing three 5- and 6-year-old children between 2008 and 2011, ended when he was found dead in his home Jan. 30.

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But Bemidji School District 31, Wangberg's employer from 1986 until his resignation in 2011, may pay a price for his alleged crimes. Named as the defendant in three lawsuits filed Wednesday in Beltrami District Court, the School District is being targeted by a St. Paul-based attorney for more than $150,000 in damages, to be paid to three alleged victims of sex abuse carried out by Wangberg, who was 58 at the time of his death.

Jeff Anderson, the same attorney who filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Crookston regarding the conduct of convicted child molester and former priest James Porter when he worked at St. Philip's School, filed Wednesday's lawsuits.

Wangberg's case was closed following his death, and he was never convicted of the crimes with which he was charged. Anderson, in his lawsuits, will be responsible not only for proving negligence on the part of school officials, but that the abuse even occurred in the first place.

In the suits, the Bemidji School District is accused of negligent behavior in allowing Wangberg to continue working at Central Elementary School, where he was a physical education teacher until he resigned in March 2011. Wangberg's resignation came two days before the first alleged victim of abuse came forward, according a search warrant application obtained last year by the Pioneer.

In an email response to the lawsuits, Bemidji School District Superintendent James Hess wrote: "The School District has received lawsuits involving three students and a former teacher. The District denies any liability and looks forward to presenting its case through the legally recognized process. Since we are in litigation, we cannot comment further at this time."

The investigation

The victim who reported abuse just before Wangberg's departure from the school was 5-years-old when she was allegedly victimized, and is named as Jane Doe 12 in the second lawsuit filed Wednesday.

In the criminal complaint for Jane Doe, 12, Wangberg is accused of sexually abusing the child in his office in the school gymnasium. Wangberg locked the door to the office when he abused the child, according to the complaint. Like the other two filed Wednesday, Jane Doe, 12's complaint involves four counts against the district: negligence, negligent retention, negligent supervision and vicarious liability.

"The plaintiff has suffered severe emotional distress, shock, embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, humiliation and loss of enjoyment of life," the complaint stated.

In a press release issued Thursday, Anderson addressed the lawsuits, saying: "Clearly, it is a tragedy when innocent children are harmed because the adults to whom their safety was entrusted failed to keep them safe. The families of these children want kids to be safer in their community and their schools. Today, they stand together demanding the action that should've been taken years ago to better protect children,"

Wangberg was the subject of a criminal investigation for about a year before police, acting on a search warrant, seized his work computer. On it, "child erotica," including images of "young girls in bikinis," was found, according to court documents.

The first police report regarding Wangberg came from Jane Doe, 12 on March 16, 2011 -- two days after he submitted his resignation to school officials. But it wasn't until two other alleged victims filed reports with police -- one on March 6, 2012 and the third on Dec. 4, 2012 -- that the search warrant was issued. That warrant, applied for on Dec. 7, 2012, allowed Bemidji police to confiscate materials from Wangberg's home.

In the first count with which Wangberg was charged in January, the victim's mother told police her daughter was "unusually quiet" after picking the student up from school. The victim then told her mother that she "was in her gym teacher's office, that her pants were down and that (Wangberg) touched her," according to a criminal complaint.

In count two, Bemidji police received a report of abuse, allegedly occurring in 2010, to a former student at the school. The victim, who by then was living with her family in Texas, was interviewed by police there. Law enforcement in Texas then shared their findings with the Bemidji Police Department. The complaint stated, in part, that Wangberg "touched her inappropriately."

The third victim told police that Wangberg allegedly took pictures of her private areas, according to the search warrant application. That student also said that she had played a game with Wangberg called "'guess the food,' which involved closing her eyes and trying to guess what "type of food" was put in her mouth, according to the complaint.

Possible negligence

The suits filed Wednesday state the School District knew about the abuse described by the children and failed to act. In one instance, a kindergarten teacher received a report from a student who said Wangberg held the child upside down over a trash can. That report came in 2009 or 2010, according to the complaint. In another, the mother of Jane Doe, 14, the plaintiff in the second suit filed Wednesday, reported alleged abuse at the hands of Wangberg in 2008 to Central Elementary School Principal Patricia Welte.

No action was taken by school officials, and police were not notified of the reports, according to the complaint.

The plaintiff in the third suit is named as Jane Doe ,13. The complaint states that the "plaintiff was groomed and sexually abused by John Wangberg" while attending kindergarten at Central. The alleged victim would have been 6-years-old at the time.

Wangberg was out on $5,000 bail when he was found dead in his rural Cass Lake home in January. At his arraignment, Wangberg's attorney, John Undem, called the amount "obscene," telling Beltrami District Judge John Melbye that Wangberg was a "well-respected member of the community" and that "if he was going to flee, he would have done so by now."

Wangberg was found dead seven days later. A four-page, handwritten suicide note was found near his body, according to police reports, but only a small portion of its contents were made available. Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver said in April that the note did "not contain a confession, directly or indirectly."

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Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
(218) 333-9200 x343
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