A lawsuit filed in federal court in Denver on Wednesday claims the Roaring Fork School District mishandled harassment claims by a female Glenwood Springs High School student and her family in the aftermath of an alleged sexual assault involving a fellow male student two years ago.
According to the claim, even though school and district officials were made aware of the situation numerous times over the course of the 2017-18 school year, nothing was done to protect the female student while both students were still attending GSHS.
After the male student accepted a plea deal in juvenile court in the spring of 2018 related to the assault incident and was sentenced to probation with sexual abuse counseling, the school board allowed him to return to school and graduate with his class after he was initially expelled, the lawsuit states.
Throughout that whole school year, the female student, who was a junior, said she was subjected to frequent, uncomfortable encounters with the student and his friends.
She also said she was the victim of physical and verbal harassment, and even death threats from fellow students, according to the civil claim filed by renowned sexual abuse attorney John Clune in U.S. District Court.
Following the male student’s expulsion and reinstatement, GSHS officials attempted to prevent him from attending prom. However, “GSHS classmates started and circulated a petition to instead allow [the male student] to attend prom and prohibit [the female student] from attending,” according to the lawsuit.
The situation ultimately prompted her to leave GSHS for her senior year and re-enroll at another area high school, limiting her academic opportunities and causing emotional pain, for which she is now seeking damages via the lawsuit.
The lawsuit was brought in federal court, rather than state district court, alleging the school district violated its obligations under the Title IX Education Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
It names the Roaring Fork School District and GSHS Assistant Principal Patrick Engle individually as defendants in the case. However, several school- and district-level administrators were aware of the situation and failed to act accordingly, the lawsuit says.
“As a result of the sexual assaults and resulting distress, plaintiff’s studies and education have suffered substantially,” the lawsuit claims.
“(Roaring Fork School District), through the inaction of various high-ranking administrators with the ability and authority to take remedial action to stop the sexual harassment and sexual discrimination, including Assistant Principal (Patrick) Engle, Principal Paul Freeman and Superintendent Rob Stein, had actual knowledge of, and were deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment that was so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive, that it deprived plaintiff of access to the educational benefits or opportunities provided by (Roaring Fork School District), in violation of Title IX.”
School district officials said late Wednesday that they had not yet been made aware of the lawsuit, and declined to comment.
According to the lawsuit, the assault occurred during the fall semester of 2016, when the female student was a sophomore and the male student a junior.
She did not report the assault to police until the following summer, and began to make school officials aware of the situation during the 2017 fall semester when she asked for protections to avoid any encounters with the male student involved.
Questions around the district’s handling of the student’s claims prompted Superintendent Stein and the school board, in the spring of 2018, to seek a third-party review of district policies dealing with harassment claims.
Larry Nesbit, a retired schools superintendent and expert in human resources and school discipline procedures, conducted the review and interviewed parties involved in the case.
His recommendations were referenced in the lawsuit, which points out that Nesbit “issued a report acknowledging that GSHS had failed to investigate further when it initially received notice from the District Attorney’s Office that [the male student involved] had been charged with sexual assault.
“Mr. Nesbit concluded that there was a need for a more consistent formal process and procedures at GSHS in order to properly investigate and determine disciplinary action, particularly in the case of serious criminal charges, and that there were significant inconsistencies in how disciplinary issues were handled within GSHS.”
A final report issued by Nesbit to the school district in May 2019 offered second recommendations for future action. Among them: establishing better investigation protocols, proper use of the student disciplinary/expulsion process, better training for secondary administrators regarding student discipline matters and due process, regular updating of discipline policies, affirming school board and administrator roles, removal of any inconsistencies in the process, and providing further student education around sexual responsibility.