Lawsuit claims Butler County school district knowingly ignored ‘systemic child sexual abuse’

The district threatened to suspend a 12-year-old sexual assault victim amid shocking acts of harassment that went unpunished, according to the complaint.
Published: Apr. 27, 2023 at 7:43 PM EDT
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OXFORD, Ohio (WXIX) - A former Talawanda Middle School student is suing the Talawanda Board of Education in federal court related to allegations that the board failed to act knowing a teacher was sexually assaulting female students as far back as 2014.

The district, according to the complaint, also failed to act knowing the plaintiff, a 12-year-old girl, was being harassed and ridiculed by her fellow students for speaking up about her alleged assault, causing the girl to drop out of school and requiring her hospitalization for self-harm and the threat of suicide.

The district “effectively swept systemic child sexual abuse under the rug” by ignoring “severe” and “pervasive” instances of sexual harassment and assault, the complaint reads.

It also willfully and knowingly destroyed evidence involving the allegations despite knowing litigation was pending, according to the complaint.

Law firms Freking, Myers and Reul, and L.L. Dunn filed suit on the girl’s behalf in U.S. District Court on Thursday. They demand a jury trial and compensation for the girl’s physical and psychological suffering, healthcare bills, loss of educational access and opportunity, and economic losses including lost future wages and attorneys’ fees.

The defendants are Talawanda Board of Education members David Bothast, Kathleen Knight-Abowitz, Chad Otto, Rebecca Howard, and Patrick Meade as well as Superintendent Ed Theroux, Principal Michael Malone and Vice Principal Stephanie Aerni.

The complaint alleges Title IX violations and state tort claims for which it also requests punitive damages.

A separate state case against the teacher filed last December is now resolved. The details of the resolution are confidential.

‘She’s afraid of going back’

The teacher was placed on paid administrative leave in December 2021 after a girl accused him of sliding his hand down the front of her chest in class, according to the complaint and the girl’s father, who spoke to FOX19 the following month. He claimed his daughter was afraid of returning to school and was suffering emotionally.

“This is why girls don’t come forward... They’re afraid of not being believed,” he said, expressing frustration at the district’s lack of communication and the pace of its inquiry.

The school board opened a Title IX investigation into the girl’s claim. The girl also filed a criminal complaint with the Oxford Police Department, which began an investigation.

Oxford police immediately received “numerous phone calls” about the teacher, according to the complaint, and many on social media protested the story wasn’t newsworthy because it was “common misbehavior” for him.

Further reporting revealed that when the teacher was placed on leave, the district was already aware of previous allegations. One mother told FOX19 the teacher “is constantly rubbing shoulders” of the girls in his classes and that he kept giving her daughter unsolicited gifts. She said she notified the district in October 2021.

The December 2021 letter placing the teacher on leave says Malone contacted the teacher twice that October regarding “inappropriate behaviors with students,” but his personnel file contained no mention of those complaints. The complaint says the allegations were never added in the first place. The mother confirmed the district never followed up with her.

“Had they taken my daughter’s complaint seriously, there wouldn’t have been any complaints after that. Why is there even one more? There shouldn’t have ever been one,” the mother said, adding she feared others would retaliate against her daughter and that she could be in his classroom again.

Investigators also heard from a woman who said the teacher sexually assaulted her in August 2014 by groping her breast in class. According to the complaint, the district failed to “appropriately intervene.”

The Title IX investigation concluded in May 2022. It supported allegations from three female students and substantiated evidence from two students who accused the teacher of sexual harassment. One student told investigators of an incident at after-school track practice five years prior:

“He pulled me aside at a practice and stood close enough to me that flecks of spit landed on my face as he spoke. He wrapped his hand tightly around the back of my neck. He then asked me to stop wearing ‘low cut tops’ to practice and said. quote, ‘Don’t bend over in front of any boys, especially me.’”

Investigators concluded the teacher should face disciplinary action but left it up to the district.

The board allowed the teacher to resign in July 2022 for “personal reasons.” Board President Patrick Meade said it allowed the district to “help put us behind us.”

‘Harassment, intimidation and ridicule’

The complaint argues the very act of the district not punishing the teacher constituted its own “gross public humiliation” of the 12-year-old girl.

But the girl also endured “extreme” hostility and harassment from her fellow students during the investigation period, and district staff failed to stop it, according to the complaint.

The complaint says multiple students chanted “free [teacher’s name]” in front of her; spread rumors about her; made fun of her for crying; taunted her by re-enacting the girl’s sexual assault on one of her friends; and prank-called her to say things like “I hope he touches your sister too.”

An altercation allegedly took place at one point involving the girl and two male students who were never disciplined. Nor did the district (teachers, coaches, administrative staff, etc.) take any actions to stop the harassment according to the complaint.

The district threatened to suspend the girl if she attended school after an altercation occurred between her and a student who had created a Snapchat group to distribute pictures and videos that humiliated her, the complaint says. She stayed home the last days of the academic year.

The girl was homeschooled starting in April 2022 due to her “deteriorating mental health and physical well-being,” according to the complaint.

Theroux admitted in an email to the girl and her family in July 2022 that their “trauma is real” and there will be “lifelong consequences,” the complaint says.

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