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Suit: Educators were on cellphones while special ed student was abused

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

A girl in special education with a developmental disorder at V. Sue Cleveland High School was led off from the auxiliary gym where she had physical education class to a bathroom where she was coerced into sex with an older student – all while teachers and a coach looked at their cellphones, a new lawsuit alleges.

The complaint, filed last week in 13th Judicial District Court, seeks actual and punitive damages at trial from defendants including the Rio Rancho Public Schools, Cleveland Principal Scott Affentranger, Vice Principal Renee Saucedo and coach Scott Ridenour for alleged failure to supervise and train teachers and administrators to recognize and report improper conditions, and to exercise due care that the building was safe for students.

The incident in question allegedly occurred Dec. 17, just before the school’s winter break. The girl, identified only by her initials, was on the bleachers with two classmates. The teachers and coach were also in the gym but “were looking at their cell phones and not supervising students in the gym,” the complaint says.

A 17-year-old boy approached the three students on the bleachers and made lewd and suggestive comments to one of them, slapped her on the buttocks and pressured her for sex, it says.

Fearing for her friend’s safety, the alleged victim felt pressured to go in her friend’s place so the harassment would stop, the lawsuit says.

The boy took the girl into the bathroom, locked the door and had her perform sex acts before she began crying and stopped, then went back to the gym and rejoined the other students. The girl told her friend she had gone with the boy in order to protect her and asked her not to speak about it.

The friend, however, reported it to a teacher, who did not immediately report the incident to the administration as required by law.

The alleged victim began exhibiting abnormal behavior in the weeks afterward, and she told a school social worker about the incident once classes resumed in January. The girl’s mother was notified and police responded to the school.

The boy allegedly admitted the incident and said he had done it before. In a statement attached to the police report, the boy says “a friend … offered” sexual favors and he accepted, asking her “numerous times if that was what she wanted. She said yes each time.” He says when she wanted to stop, he told her he understood and “let her out” of the bathroom.

The parents asked for a full investigation by the school, but the lawsuit alleges that the principal initially declined and it was the parents who contacted the main office for Rio Rancho Public Schools.

According to the complaint, the principal said the coach had been on his cellphone because he was “conducting business” during the time the girl was taken to the bathroom, and the principal allegedly admitted there had been two prior incidents involving students in the same bathroom.

A police officer later told one of the parents that the bathroom was supposed to remain locked because of those incidents.

One of the alleged victim’s parents emailed teachers in February about their daughter’s emotional reactions to the event and asked them to be vigilant about her personal safety, but the girl nevertheless had a self-harming incident in which she cut herself and teachers did not notice or halt the behavior.

Charlotte Hetherington of the Cuddy, McCarthy law firm in Santa Fe, attorneys for the district, said Friday that she had not been served with the complaint and couldn’t comment on it.

“Schools have an obligation to educate, support and protect all children. … This lawsuit is to seek redress for that injury and make sure that the schools have appropriate safeguards and training in place to protect” students, attorney Antonia Roybal-Mack said in a statement on behalf of the girl’s parents.