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Plaintiff in Glenwood Springs High School student harassment case hopes to be agent for change

Changes slowly being made across K-12 schools in dealing with sexual assault, harassment claims, but litigation still a powerful tool to get there

Courtney Hassell, formerly of Glenwood Springs, on campus at Linfield University in Portland, where she is studying education and plans to graduate a year early.
Courtesy photo

Courtney Hassell says she could have been completely disillusioned with schools and education, and in many ways she was, after an experience three years ago at Glenwood Springs High School.

Instead, the 21-year-old student at Linfield University in Portland is now studying to be an educator, with an eye toward doing her part to change a system that she and her family said failed her after she reported a sexual assault involving a male student, and was subjected to retaliation as a result.

“The more that I’m around the education world and being at a college now, the more I’m seeing this is an issue, not just at (Glenwood Springs), but that it’s happening everywhere and victims are not being heard the way that they should,” Hassell said.



“In my case, I was able to overcome and stay on top of it, and to make it a positive thing and kind of turn it around,” she said.

Though she was named only as “Jane Doe” in the resulting federal lawsuit against the Roaring Fork School District, Hassell said she decided to go public in an effort to draw attention to the issue.



Earlier this year, she and her parents, Roman and Karie Hassell, settled a federal Title IX lawsuit that was filed in January 2020 against Roaring Fork School District over its handling of student harassment claims that stemmed from the sexual assault incident in fall 2016.

The terms and monetary amount of the settlement were not disclosed, and no wrongdoing on the part of the district or school administrators was declared in the deal reached just before the case was to go to trial in late June.

District officials said in a statement that its insurer elected to settle the case rather than continue litigating claims that the district did not follow proper protocols in responding to the incident and protecting the victim from harassment by fellow students that she said ensued.

Hassell and her parents, both educators and former school district employees themselves, still believe there was a general lack of accountability shown on the part of district officials in the case.

In the lawsuit and in a followup interview after the settlement, the Hassells described a disturbing series of events in which the school and district were slow to react to the situation, allowed the student who ultimately pleaded guilty in juvenile court to third-degree assault to remain in school, and failed to prevent harassment and retaliation against their daughter.

“As a teacher in the district at the time this was happening, there was a lot of talk around character, and character development, which was one of the pillars we were pushing for,” said Karie Hassell, who was teaching at Glenwood Springs Middle School at the time. “It was all about having courageous conversations and being honest with your students, and supporting your students.

“But then to see the layers that they used to try to cover this up to protect themselves … none of those things happened in the treatment of Courtney,” she said.

Many of the Hassells’ concerns were upheld in a third-party review of the district’s handling of the situation, which was conducted in the spring of 2018 at the request of the school board and Superintendent Rob Stein.

That investigator was Larry Nisbet, a retired school superintendent with experience in human resources and student discipline procedures. His report was highly critical of the way things were handled.

“Evidently, no school personnel talked with Courtney to see what might be done to support her through this trying experience, and initially the school personnel or district took no immediate steps to address the accusations filed in court and examine the issues and implications to the student charged and the ramifications to the school community,” Nisbet wrote in his report, which was referenced in the lawsuit.

The situation ultimately pushed Courtney to leave GSHS during her junior year, giving up her love of high school sports after she was cut from the volleyball team and ultimately finishing her high school education at the district’s alternative Bridges High School.

The family, which has since relocated to Montrose, isn’t so quick to put an experience that totally disrupted their lives behind them.

As part of her healing, though, Courtney said she believes her voice can be an important one in bringing more awareness to the issue, and ultimately change.

“I don’t think I knew how big of an effect it was having in the moment until just recently,” she said. “I went straight to college, and it was super busy and chaotic, so I think I was still suppressing everything.”

The healing came as she witnessed on her college campus how a supportive environment should look.

“I started to see firsthand how teachers and administrators are supposed to act towards students, and how they’re supposed to protect us,” Hassell said.

Change through litigation

The Hassell’s attorney, John Clune of the Boulder-based law firm Hutchinson, Black and Cook, has been litigating Title IX cases for about 15 years, including several in Colorado.

Title IX prohibits sexual discrimination and harassment in public and private K-12 schools, colleges and universities. It includes protections against sexual violence in the school setting, laying out proper responses whenever an assault or harassment is claimed.

“When I first started doing this, many schools didn’t understand that Title IX applied to sexual harassment,” Clune said. “None of them had Title IX coordinators, or any sort of policies in place.”

It has been through a combination of litigation, student-led advocacy and a lot of public awareness raising that things have slowly started to change, he said.

Clune acknowledged that change has come more quickly at the post-secondary level, as Hassell pointed out.

Public and private K-12 schools and districts are coming along slowly, especially as legal pressure is applied, he said.

Currently, Clune is representing plaintiffs in a case against the Boulder Valley School District claiming Fairview High School officials for years cultivated “a sexually hostile environment” and failed to respond to reports of sexual assault. The principal of that school, Donald Stensrud, remains on administrative leave while the case is being investigated.

In another recent case reported by the Denver Post, the athletic director at Chatfield High School in Jefferson County, Craig Aukland, is facing a misdemeanor charge of failure to report child abuse and neglect, and the principal, Chad Broer, recently stepped down as a result of allegations there.

“There has been a lot more awareness raised, and a lot of that has come through these lawsuits,” Clune said.

By the time the case against the Roaring Fork School District was over, it, too, had come into voluntary compliance.

Policy changes

At the time the allegations against the student first came to light, and as the Hassells began questioning the district’s response, Nisbet was brought in to review the district’s policies and procedures regarding assault and harassment claims.

Nisbet’s report offered several recommendations, which ultimately led to some policy revisions for the district. Among the recommendations were to:

  • Establish better investigation protocols
  • Ensure proper use of the student disciplinary/expulsion process
  • Offer better training for secondary administrators on student discipline matters
  • Update the district’s disciplinary policies
  • Affirm school board and administrator roles regarding assault and harassment claims
  • Remove any inconsistencies in the process
  • Provide better student education on sexual responsibility.

The school board at the time further requested that the district refine its procedures for safe reporting of incidents by students and staff, and to make sure effective training and restorative practices were in place. Those efforts were outlined in a lengthy report to the school board at its May 22, 2019 meeting.

District officials did not respond directly when questioned recently about how those policies and procedures have been put into practice in the two years since they were implemented.

“We are always striving to improve our practices where needed,” the district reiterated in a statement last week. “We revamped our policies as a result of this situation and based on the recommendations of the third-party consultant. We put those new practices in place immediately.”

Likewise, the Garfield Re-2 School District in recent years has refined its policies related to sexual harassment (revised August 2020) and grievance procedures (revised June 2019). The district serving Rifle, Silt and New Castle also adopted a new Title IX policy related specifically to sexual harassment investigation procedures in August 2020.

School districts are required to report student disciplinary actions to the Colorado Department of Education.

Data recorded on the CDE website does show an increase in students disciplined for a variety of behaviors, not exclusive to assault, from 233 in 2018 to 342 in 2019. That number dropped back down to 272 during the 2020-21 school year, a good part of which was spent in online classes due to the COVID-19 protocols.

Garfield Re-2, according to that same data site, had 940 student disciplinary actions in 2018. That number dropped off to 377 in 2019 and 326 in 2020.

“There are still a lot of high schools in the same situation as Glenwood Springs was, where administrators have no training in how to respond to these cases,” Clune said. “But they are moving in that direction.”

Clune said it’s not always a given that an administrator or staff member will be placed on leave or let go in such cases. It depends on the circumstances, he said.

“School boards are the ones that have to make decisions, but I don’t think that’s something that has to occur,” Clune said, noting it’s often a case of ignorance of Title IX protocols, rather than something malicious.

As for the Roaring Fork Schools’ policy, “A staff member would be put on leave if we have concern for student or staff well-being or if they are being investigated for something that would be cause for termination,” the district said in its statement. “Because we can never share details about student or personnel issues due to confidentiality, the public generally doesn’t hear the whole story.”

Separate but similar policies apply to student discipline.

Reporting; better yet, prevention

Blythe Chapman is the executive director at the River Bridge Regional Center in Glenwood Springs, which assists victims in the investigation process for child sexual abuse cases. That includes date-rape situations involving older youth.

Reporting of such incidents has always been a problem, with many months or years passing before some cases ever come to light. That may have been especially true during the pandemic, she said.

What families and young victims need to be aware of, Chapman said, is that the system does work when proper protocols are followed and investigations take place in a timely manner.

Since the Roaring Fork Schools and other area school districts revised their policies, she said there has been important progress made in the way they’ve been handled.

But it’s a complex issue that needs to be addressed on the prevention side, as well, she said.

“A lot of what we’re seeing now is not just date rape, or what we called date rape in the past, but it’s kid on kid sexualized behavior that is abnormal,” Chapman said. “We’re seeing 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds with sexualized behavior that’s pretty concerning. And it’s not just here, it’s all across the country.”

Community institutions like schools have an important role to play in responding to that type of behavior.

“There’s a lot of secrecy and victim blaming that goes on when these cases get reported,” Chapman said.

But if such behavior is caught early and dealt with through counseling support, it shouldn’t get to that point, she said.

“If you can intervene and redirect that behavior, and provide good mental health support, that behavior can and will stop,” she said. “But if we shove it under the rug, which is what we’ve seen here and across the country, you just get stuck in that, ‘we don’t need to talk about it; it’ll just go away.’”

An ongoing problem continues to be resource availability for qualified mental health treatment for juveniles, Chapman said.

In-school supports

Roaring Fork Schools have also increased their mental health resources in recent years, including the opening of a school-based health center at Glenwood Springs High School.

Athletic programs have also attempted to teach student-athletes about character off the field or court, including proper dating etiquette.

GSHS Assistant Principal Pat Engle, who was named individually in the Hassell lawsuit, declined to speak specifically to that case. But he did talk recently about efforts in his role as the school’s football coach to teach life lessons in addition to football.

“We call it real-life Wednesday,” he said of the weekly sessions to talk about things like character, proper conduct and treating people with respect.

Before the pandemic hit, the team also began working with the local Advocate Safehouse Project to implement a new “coaching boys to men” program.

That project never really took off, partly because of the disruptions caused by the pandemic. But the resources are still available, said Safehouse Project Executive Director Julie Olson.

She pointed to two programs that could be great resources, if local schools wanted to implement them. One is Futures Without Violence, and its “Changing the Game for Girls by Coaching Boys Into Men” program. Another is Prevent IPV, which offers a variety of programs about health relationships and setting healthy boundaries.

Both the Roaring Fork and Garfield County Re-2 use the Garfield County PREP (Personal Responsibility Education Program) sex education curriculum, which covers social-emotional development, healthy relationships and consent when it comes to dating that’s geared toward both middle and high school students.

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or jstroud@postindependent.com.


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