Federal suit claims GMUSD, TRSU officials did little to stop harassment

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Late last week, the list of lawsuits against the Two Rivers Supervisory Union and its constituent school districts grew by one as a 30-count, 69-page complaint alleging a “sexually hostile school environment,” among other claims, was filed in the U.S. District Court for Vermont.

The suit names the TRSU and the Green Mountain Unified School District, their boards as well as several employees including Superintendent Meg Powden in both their individual and their official capacities. It also names former Green Mountain High Principal Tom Ferenc, Associate Principal Michael Ripley and Director of Guidance Pam O’Neill.

The plaintiffs in the suit are five sisters in the White family, whose mother Venissa White is the after-school program coordinator for TRSU.

The suit cites the school’s conduct toward the sisters after the eldest – Skylar White – accused fellow GM student Ryan Stocker of sexual assault in May 2017. In June 2017, Stocker was charged with two counts of sexual assault and, according to the suit, the girls were harassed by his friends at the school.

The first five counts refer to Title IX to allege that “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” harassment created a “hostile school environment” that prevented its victims from accessing the educational opportunities provided by GM. They also say that the school’s failure to take “timely and reasonable measures” and other responses constituted “deliberate indifference” to the situation.

Counts six through 10 name GMUSD and TRSU while 11 through 15 name Powden, Ferenc, Ripley and O’Neill and assert that — under federal law — the Whites were denied access to public education as a result of the defendants’ actions or lack of action.

Ten more counts allege that GMUSD and TRSU were required under Vermont law to have a “harassment, hazing and bullying prevention policy” and to enforce it, but that did not happen and that the Whites were harmed by the defendants’ conduct.

The final five counts assert that the defendants were negligent and breached a “duty of care” harming the plaintiffs. The description of some of the harassment is raw and will be seen by many as deeply offensive. Before the end of the 2017/2018 school year, three of the four remaining sisters had left the school for another district and the fourth graduated in June 2018.

“We are coming into a new era in sexual harassment, sexual assault and violence against women,” attorney Karen Hewes of EdLaw New England, which represents the Whites, said in an interview on Monday. “School administrators have an obligation to protect their students and it’s not OK in any circumstances for a young woman to be raped and then be forced to see her rapist at school and forced to hear others talk about it and to have her sisters retaliated against because she reported it.”

“We need to hold leadership positions accountable for the way their decisions affect young women,” said Hewes.  “With this action, we hope to make my clients whole and shine a spotlight on the marginalization of young women within our educational establishment.”

Before the suit was initiated, there was an independent review of issues by Rutland attorney Ruth Durkee and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The former found that some of the incidents should have triggered a formal sexual harassment investigation but did not, that the school should have developed a safety plan for the students sooner than it did, that some teachers were inadequately trained to handle sexual harassment and the inappropriate conduct that took place in their presence and that there was a failure to recognize the impact of the harassment on the girls.

OCR found that the resolution process brought about by the Durkee review was acceptable and, in November 2018, decided there was no reason to take action itself.

“There was an opportunity to settle the case while it was pending before OCR in the summer of 2018 and the offer was declined,” said Hewes, noting that the discussions were preliminary and no dollar figures had been brought up.

Also on Monday, Marilyn Mahusky, who was the chair of both the GMUSD and TRSU boards at the time, told The Telegraph that she was unaware of the offer to discuss a settlement, but noted that such a decision might have been made by VSBIT, the insurance carrier that would pay any claims in the end. Insurance companies routinely participate in defense strategies in lawsuits.

The White family has not asked for a specific monetary judgment, but has asked for compensatory and punitive damages in an amount to be proven at trial.

In addition to the latest suit, TRSU and/or its constituent districts are facing a wrongful termination claim based on physical disability, a suit arising from a dog bite inside the Black River High School and an investigation into a disability based wrongful termination from Cavendish Town Elementary School.

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  1. This is a concerning story. Thank you for keeping the community informed.

  2. Otis Nelson says:

    Oh boy, this union just keeps racking up the lawsuits. Proud of the Whites for stepping up to finally get things addressed by the union and its employees. Thank you! Maybe the TRSU board should have waited before ratifying Meg Powden’s contract! She has proven time and again she can’t provide this union the necessary leadership our kids deserve!