Archive for Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Lawsuit targets Tonganoxie schools

May 12, 2004

A federal lawsuit filed Friday charges the Tonganoxie school district with sexual discrimination in how it addressed the alleged sexual harassment of a former student.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court by the former student's father on the youth's behalf, alleges the district took no action to prevent sexual harassment of the student and failed to punish other students who participated in the sexual harassment.

The suit alleges the harassment prevented the student access to an education.

After meeting in a series of executive sessions that stretched over more than two hours Monday night, board member Darlyn Hansen made a motion recommending that the district acknowledge receipt of the court summons and defend all the individuals named as defendants. Board members approved the motion in a 7-0 vote.

Defendants in the suit include school board members Rick Lamb, Darlyn Hansen, Bob DeHoff, Dick Dean, Leana Leslie, Ron Moore and Kay Smith; district superintendent Richard Erickson, junior high principal Steve Woolf, high school principal Mike Bogart and high school vice principal Brent Smith.

After the meeting, the district's attorney, Steven Pigg, Topeka, said he doubts the district will settle out of court. Although sexual harassment cases are common, Pigg said he had not seen a case such as this.

"This is different because it's not really sexual harassment," Pigg said.

The suit said a district policy states that Tonganoxie schools do not tolerate sexual harassment of a student by another student. However, the suit alleges the district only investigates and punishes student-on-student sexual harassment when it involves males harassing females. The suit charges that the district didn't stop sexual harassment of this student, didn't punish students doing the harassing and didn't protect the student from sexual harassment while he was involved in school programs and activities.

By failing to protect the student's rights, the school district allowed the student to be in a dangerous situation, the suit alleges.

And according to the suit, the district was negligent in supervising students and in failing to discipline students who had harassed the student.

Monday morning, superintendent Erickson said he had not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit.

"We just read about it in the newspaper that there was one out there, and heard it in the news media," the superintendent said.

He said he couldn't comment.

"Our attorney advised us not to say anything," Erickson said. "We'd sure like to -- there are some things we'd like to comment on but we're at a point where we obviously have to comply with the wishes of our attorney on this."

The student, on behalf of whom the lawsuit was filed, told The Mirror that he felt a duty to step forward.

"If I don't stand up and stop this, who will," he said. "Maybe by me standing up, it will help other kids that are having this same problem."

The suit identifies the student and his father by only their initials.

The lawsuit paints this picture of alleged sexual harassment that began in February 2000:

Four boys who sat at the same lunch table at Tonganoxie Junior High School sexually harassed the student. Students at the school sit at assigned seating during lunch.

Male students at the school began spreading sexual rumors about him. They wrote sexual statements about him on classroom chalkboards and called him sexual names in front of teachers.

They tricked a teacher into calling him a sexually derogatory term. Many of the comments implied the student was homosexual.

In addition, the students intimidated girls who were friends with the student.

From February 2000 until December 2003, the student allegedly was the target of repeated sexual comments.

On several occasions, the boy became involved in fights with students who were harassing him.

As time went on, the student became more and more anxious. His grades suffered. After finishing the first semester of his junior year at THS, the student dropped out. In February, at the age of 16, he took and passed the GED examination.

The lawsuit alleges that because of the harassment, the student suffered emotional strain and suffering, the loss of normal high school social experiences and the loss of counselor assistance in applying for college, as well as the loss of financial assistance for college.

From 2000 through 2003, the boy's parents repeatedly complained to school officials about their son's treatment.

Last fall, they talked in executive session to school board members. According to the parents, none of their efforts helped. The sexual harassment continued.

On Dec. 17, 2003, the parents lodged a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. And shortly after that, they contacted Kansas City, Mo., civil rights attorney Arthur Benson.

In an interview with The Mirror on Monday, the student's mother said she and her husband realized it was a major step to file the civil rights complaint and pursue the lawsuit against the district.

"Basically it was the last resort," the mother said. "They (school officials) wouldn't listen to us, they wouldn't do anything, they wouldn't take care of the problem."

The lawsuit is about more than money, the mother said. It's about a teenager being denied his rights.

"The students that harassed him are still in school, the administrators that let it go on still have their jobs and our son has nothing," the mother said. "He had to drop out of school and he doesn't get to go to prom, he doesn't get to graduate and he doesn't get the scholarships."

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