Former Concord High student sues district for Title IX violations

Monitor staff
Published: 6/30/2019 10:23:01 PM

A former Concord High School student who says she was sexually assaulted by a classmate on a school bus in late 2017 is suing the district, alleging that its administrators improperly investigated the incident and failed to make accommodations to ensure her safety.

The girl, who was a junior at the time, says school administrators took months to investigate her report while she continued to cross paths with the boy who threatened her after she reported he groped her and sexually assaulted her on a school bus in Deerfield on Nov. 29, 2017, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Concord.

“Ultimately, the investigation found that, although the sexual assault was unwelcomed contact, the student perpetrator did not violate the sexual harassment policy because (the victim) froze during the assault instead of saying no or asking him to stop,” wrote the girl’s attorney, Karen Hewes of EdLaw New England, PLLC. “This incorrectly, and in direct contradiction to federal law, shifted the burden of responsibility of a sexual assault from the perpetrator to the victim.”

Instead of setting restrictions and parameters for the boy, school staff instructed the girl on what hallways and stairwells to use to get to class to avoid her perpetrator, the suit says. She became so depressed and uncomfortable that she ultimately withdrew from Concord High while awaiting her transfer to another school.

The district has denied all claims brought forward in the federal lawsuit and said administrators did not violate federal or state law or any public policies. Further, the district maintains that its investigation into the alleged abuse was “thorough and complete” and included a report to Deerfield police.

The federal lawsuit, filed in spring 2018, echoes similar accusations other families have made against the school district, specifically that Concord school officials do not properly respond to allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

In December, three female students reported seeing special education teacher Primo “Howie” Leung kissing a fellow student inside a car. The school district investigated but did not notify police. A school guidance counselor, Karen Slick, who was also a union representative, sought to discredit and disprove the report by the three girls in letters to Principal Tom Sica and Superintendent Terri Forsten, according to school documents.

After the New Hampshire Department of Education forwarded a report from the Concord School District to police, Leung was arrested in April and charged with repeatedly sexually assaulting a former middle school student in and around Rundlett and at a boarding school in Massachusetts. Leung is awaiting trial on rape charges in Massachusetts from a Middlesex Jail cell.

Earlier, in 2014, seventh grader Ana Goble was suspended by Sica, then principal at Rundlett Middle School, for spreading “malicious and slanderous gossip” after she told others that Leung was behaving inappropriately with a select group of girls. After Leung was arrested, her parents sought an apology from the district and demanded teachers and administrators be trained on how to respond to reports of sexual misconduct.

The district is now moving forward with an independent investigation to examine how reports of inappropriate behavior by Leung were handled years ago, and as recently as 2018. After the students came forward in December, Leung remained on the job for 3½ months until he was placed on paid leave March 27.

In the meantime, Sica, who chose not to attend Concord High School’s graduation June 15, elected to go on paid administrative leave, effective June 24, while the investigation takes place.

Simultaneously, the school board has begun its review of the district’s policies related to student safety, staff ethics and how to report instances of suspected abuse.

As the civil lawsuit proceeds in federal court, the girl hopes that by sharing her story she will help bring about long-term change to ensure all victims who come forward are supported, Hewes said.

“Broadly, the goal is to change the policies and the culture at Concord High School to be one that is more supportive of victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Hewes said, adding that an appropriate response includes interim measures to ensure a victim’s well-being and safety during the process.

Attorney Dona Feeney, who is representing the district, declined to comment last week about the pending civil case.

Frustration with school district

The girl and her family have brought four claims against the district to include Title IX violations and negligence and are also seeking compensation for attorney’s fees. The lawsuit alleges that the sexual assault and harassment were so severe that the girl was denied her right to a public education at Concord High School. The suit names Forsten, Sica and three assistant principals – Thomas Crumrine, Chali Davis and James Corkum – as defendants.

The district first learned of the allegations on Nov. 30, 2017, the day after the girl said she was sexually assaulted on the bus. That was the first time the girl detailed for Corkum and the school resource officer what had happened on the ride home from school the prior afternoon. Six days later, she met with Davis to whom she disclosed the full extent of what had occurred, noting that she was more comfortable talking to a woman than two men.

In a phone conversation on Dec. 7, 2018, the girl’s parents spoke to Crumrine, who said he had completed his investigation and determined that there was not enough evidence that the boy had violated the school’s sexual harassment policy. However, Deerfield police had been notified and the school was planning to transfer the boy to another bus.

Seven days later, the girl and her father met with Sica, who said the investigation had shown that the boy had violated the sexual harassment policy and that he would be suspended from the bus for 10 days and thereafter reassigned, the lawsuit says.

In response, the school denied that Sica ever told the family that the boy had violated the policy, according to court documents.

After repeated requests to meet with Forsten, the family ultimately sent a letter to her on Jan. 22, 2018, expressing their frustration with the school’s investigation and administrators’ lack of follow through. They also believed that the district had not fully vetted their daughter’s report after she made further disclosures.

The letter was addressed in a meeting with Forsten and Sica two days later. During the conversation, Forsten told the family she’d received regular updates about the investigation but was unaware the girl had disclosed more serious allegations of sexual assault to Davis in the days after making her initial report, according to the lawsuit.

“Principal Sica also stated that he could not recall this information and would have to consult his notes,” the family alleges.

The district informed the parents by email on Feb. 1, 2018, that it was reopening the investigation into the school bus incident and the events that followed, including threats that the girl said the boy made against her for speaking up.

That same month, the girl stopped attending school because she felt unsafe. She was ultimately enrolled in another high school in the Concord area.

Bullying, not sexual harassment

Final word that the district’s investigation was complete did not reach the parents until March 2, 2018. The district concluded that because the girl did not say “no” until after the fact, the boy had not violated the school’s Title IX policy.

Hewes said by phone last week that the district’s findings directly contradict with federal law because administrators shifted responsibility for the assault from the perpetrator to the victim.

“In our culture today, especially in the context of college cases, we’re moving from ‘no means no’ to ‘yes means yes’ when we talk about consent, and I don’t see that carrying over here when we look at how the Concord School District handled my client’s report,” she said.

The lawsuit says that the boy was found in violation of the school’s bullying policy and other components of Title IX for ignoring a no-contact order by texting another student about the girl and by threatening witnesses, including the victim.

Forsten told the girl’s parents that the boy would be disciplined but did not provide any further information.

The district said the criminal investigation into the allegations of sexual assault were handled by Deerfield police. Because the case involves two juveniles, police are unable to discuss their findings or any criminal charges against a minor.

Disclosure in sexual assault cases can sometimes take years or even decades because victims fear they won’t be believed and retaliation from their perpetrators. Hewes said she commends her client for coming forward and seeking help.

“The fact that she was able to do so quickly is pretty amazing and speaks to her character and her confidence and also the support she’s continued to receive from her family,” she said.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319 or at adandrea@cmonitor.com.)



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