Judge rules claim against Glenwood High School administrator can proceed
Assistant principal co-defendant in case brought by former student against Roaring Fork School District
A federal judge has ruled that a claim filed by a female former Glenwood Springs Springs High School student against a school administrator over sexual harassment allegations may move forward.
U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson, in a 17-page Dec. 29, 2020 order, denied GSHS Assistant Principal and football coach Patrick Engle’s motion to dismiss the claims made against him individually in the Jan. 20, 2020 lawsuit.
“The question here is whether this verbal and physical harassment can constitute sexual harassment sufficient to put defendant Engle on notice. I find that it does,” Jackson wrote.
“In fact, it is absurd to paint these allegations as anything other than predominantly sexual harassment, particularly when plaintiff has alleged that they all relate directly to the sexual assault she underwent, an extreme form of sexual harassment itself,” the judge wrote.
The lawsuit, filed by the plaintiff identified only as “Jane Doe,” claims the Roaring Fork School District and Engle in particular mishandled harassment claims by the student and her family following a sexual assault involving a male student in October 2016 when the plaintiff was a sophomore.
She didn’t report it to authorities until the following summer.
The claim alleges that GSHS and district officials were made aware of continuing incidents of harassment at the hands of the perpetrator and other students over the course of the 2017-18 school year. However, nothing was done to protect the female student while both students were still attending GSHS, the suit claims.
The male student, identified as “John Smith” in the lawsuit, ultimately accepted a plea deal in juvenile court in spring 2018, and was sentenced to probation and sexual abuse counseling.
After initially being expelled from school as a result, he was allowed to return and graduate with his class that spring, according to the suit.
The victim and her family, meanwhile, claim she became depressed as a result of the uncomfortable encounters with the perpetrator, harassment by other students, and a lack of action by school administrators. Her academic performance suffered, and she was eventually forced to switch schools.
In March 2018, Engle sent an email to the girl’s mother explaining that, “unfortunately … the school has taken no actions,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges the plaintiff’s equal protection rights under federal law were violated by the school district and Engle, who showed “deliberate indifference” to the harassment claims.
John Clune, an attorney with Hutchinson, Black and Cook, represents the plaintiff.
“We’re certainly pleased with the ruling, and felt like the judge had a good handle on our case, which is helpful,” Clune said. He added that the plaintiff has since graduated high school and is attending college.
A trial in the case is scheduled to begin June 28 in U.S. District Court in Denver.
Engle and the school district are co-represented in the case by the Denver law firm Semple, Farrington, Everall & Case.
The school district has supported Engle’s efforts to dismiss the case against him individually, based on qualified immunity, which shields public employees from liability unless there’s a clear violation.
Attorneys for the defendants have written that the harassment allegations are “general in nature and do not show that Mr. Engle was told anything specific about the nature of the harassment or intimidation, much less that the harassment or intimidation constituted ‘sexual harassment.’”
Judge Jackson disagreed in ruling against the motion to dismiss.
“She was taunted for the assault and questioned about whether the sexual encounter was actually nonconsensual,” the judge wrote.
Jackson also sided with the plaintiff, saying she has a right to challenge the individual actions of school officials for not taking her claims seriously and having them properly investigated.
“Instead of spurring school officials, supervisors and others to investigate or otherwise respond upon learning about alleged sexual harassment and assault, these government officials could sit back and ignore every instance of such harmful conduct that was not reported to them in great detail,” he wrote.
Engle, reached via his GSHS email address, declined to comment on the latest ruling in the lawsuit.
Questions about the school district’s handling of the student’s claims prompted Superintendent Rob Stein in the spring of 2018 to seek a third-party review of district policies dealing with harassment claims.
A final report issued in May 2019 is referenced in the lawsuit. It offers seven recommendations for future action, including establishing better investigation protocols, ensuring proper use of the student disciplinary/expulsion process, better training for secondary administrators on student discipline matters, regular updates of disciplinary policies, affirming school board and administrator roles, removal of inconsistencies in the process, and providing student education on sexual responsibility.
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