Last December several young girls testified at a trial for a juvenile charged with multiple counts of battery, all of which a lawsuit states occurred in 2016 and 2017 at Westridge Middle School in Overland Park.
One girl said that the juvenile had taken her cell phone and fled to a stairwell at the school. When she followed him, the juvenile pinned her to a wall and groped her. Surveillance video from the school was played at the trial.
Another student said the juvenile’s unwanted advances were so frequent that she had worked out a system with her bus driver. When she signaled with a wink or a nod, the bus driver would make sure the pair were separated.
Some of the girls reported that he had touched their buttocks, made sexually suggestive statements, and initiated other unwanted contact.
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And finally, another victim said that around Feb. 28, 2017, the juvenile shoved his fingers down her pants and penetrated her in an eighth grade study hall with two teachers present.
Did Shawnee Mission school officials know about and fail to properly investigate these incidents before the final victim’s experience was reported to a school resource officer?
In October, the final victim and her father sued the Shawnee Mission School District alleging that prior to her assault, school officials knew about and sat on reports of misconduct made about the juvenile.
That’s an allegation the Shawnee Mission School District has vehemently denied through a spokesperson, its lawyer and in court filings. In court documents, defense lawyers argue that the district “handled the unfortunate (study hall) incident perfectly well,” and was investigating reports of unwanted touching made against the juvenile by other students when it learned of the study hall incident.
After that incident, “the District immediately suspended (the juvenile) when the misconduct was discovered,” court documents read. “The District then swiftly investigated and permanently expelled (the juvenile) such that he never returned to the District....”
Documents filed on behalf of the district state that Westridge Middle School employees discovered the incident involving the eighth grader while actively investigating a separate incident and that the girl had not reported what had happened to her to school officials prior to that.
District lawyers also say that the plaintiffs have failed to provide evidence that indicate negligent behavior on the part of the district.
In the December criminal trial after the girls testified, that juvenile was found guilty of three counts of battery for incidents that reportedly occurred before the victim’s assault. He was also found guilty of one count of aggravated liberties with a child for the study hall incident.
Last month, he was sentenced to 21 days of house arrest, 12 months of probation and seven days in a juvenile facility. He is also required to register as a sex offender.
Since its October filing, the lawsuit against the district has been amended twice, most recently on Jan. 26. The amendment makes a motion by the district to dismiss the original lawsuit moot, though the district could ask the court to dismiss the lawsuit again.
Both original and amended complaints name former superintendent Jim Hinson, Westridge Principal Jeremy McDonnell, Westridge Assistant Principal Jade Peters and former school board member Craig Denny as defendants.
In the original complaint filed in October, plaintiffs accused the district of not reporting three previous sexual assault allegations. That allegation has changed to “unwanted physical contact with female students” in amended filings.
According to the most-recent complaint:
The victim and her father say that both McDonnell and Peters were informed of the February 2017 incident, as was a school resource officer. That officer would later tell the victim’s mother that the juvenile had three other “unwelcome physical contact” incidents in his file, according to the lawsuit.
The school resource officer told the mother that he “had never seen so many complaints about a boy as young as the perpetrator.”
The lawsuit states that Peters also mentioned to the victim’s mother that she was aware of previous incidents involving the boy. It also states that McDonnell should have been aware of the complaints per a policy requiring principals to be informed of all sexual harassment and discrimination complaints.
In March 2017, Westridge Middle School officials suspended the boy for 10 days, before he was permanently expelled, according to court documents filed by the district.
The school resource officer filed a police report in early March 2017 for both the Feb. 28 incident and other incidents the school had become aware of.
The boy was charged with one count of aggravated indecent liberties with a minor, a security level 4 person felony.
The mother would address the board at a public school board meeting that spring, informing them of the incident. Hinson, then the acting superintendent, was present. She also personally took Denny aside to inform him of the assault, the lawsuit states.
The mother reiterated her concerns that the school had sat on previous complaints before her daughter’s assault in a letter sent to the school board on March 27, 2017.
The lawsuit states that the mother received a “generic” response.
District lawyers argue that the lawsuit does not provide any specific information that shows that Westridge Middle School employees had known about or failed to take action on three prior allegations.
They also point out that Hinson and Denny were informed of the incident well after it reportedly occurred and that it took an investigation of a separate incident to learn about the victim’s experience in the first place.
In April, prosecutors added three counts of battery to the aggravated indecent liberties charge filed against the juvenile.
Two months before the December trial, Erin Little, who was then the Shawnee Mission School District spokesperson but has since left the district, issued a statement related to the case.
“We can say, without reservation, that the investigation determined these allegations have been deemed untrue and inaccurate,” the statement read. “The district cannot comment any further, however we look forward to presenting the accurate information at the proper time and place.”
On Friday, Curtis Tideman, a lawyer who represents the Shawnee Mission School District, called the allegations in the lawsuit “inaccurate” and “inadequate.”