Foreseeable Harm? 

A father sues 4J and the state, saying his 7-year-old son was sexually assaulted at school two years ago

A parent is suing the Eugene School District 4J and the state, claiming negligence led to his son being sexually assaulted at school.

A Lane County resident sued the district and the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) Nov. 5 in Lane County Circuit Court on behalf of his son, seeking $4.14 million in damages and demanding a jury trial.

A complaint dated Oct. 14, 2020, says the then 7-year-old child was sexually assaulted in April 2019 by another student in an elementary school bathroom.

The other student, who was “a foster child and/or youth offender” in the care and custody of DHS, “was known to have aberrant sexual behaviors,” according to the complaint.

The complaint says the school district was or should have been aware of the student’s sexual proclivities, and that the district’s and DHS’s failures to supervise him allowed the assault to happen. “On the day of the sexual assault, [the student] was allowed to venture in the school hallways unsupervised and allowed to interact with other students,” according to the court filing.

The school district had a duty to keep the victim safe through close supervision, the complaint says, and DHS failed to appropriately address the other student’s behavior despite the risk he posed to other children.

“Anytime a child is abused or neglected it is a tragic and traumatizing experience for that child,” DHS Press Secretary Jake Sunderland tells Eugene Weekly. “Unfortunately due to child privacy laws we are not able to comment on past or current cases. And we do not comment on pending or active litigation.”

The parent’s attorney declined to provide a statement, and the school district declined to comment due to pending litigation.

Not only was the sexual assault preventable, the parent says, but this was not the first instance of children being in danger on school grounds. The district knew — or should have known — that the elementary school was unsafe and has “a history of children being injured” at school, with unsupervised children posing a higher risk, the court filing says.

In September 2011, a parent sued the Eugene School District 4J and Springfield School District in federal court on behalf of her daughter. The complaint says that Chad Schacht, a former cross country coach at Sheldon High School and teacher at Agnes Stewart Middle School, sexually abused her daughter “approximately 30 separate times” over a two-month period in 2010 when she was a high school student participating on the cross country team. 

Schacht pleaded guilty on Dec. 16, 2010, in Lane County Circuit Court to seven counts of second-degree sexual abuse, court records show.

All of her “emotional and psychological injuries are permanent and will remain for the rest of her life,” according to the complaint. The court filing says Agnes Stewart Middle School was aware of his prior inappropriate conduct toward female students at the school, to the extent that it restricted him from being alone with girls or having the door to his classroom closed, removed him as the physical education teacher and required that he be supervised. 

When contacted about the victim’s sexual exploitation, the complaint says, the middle school “indicated they had been expecting it for 8 years.” 

The Eugene and Springfield school districts share information about appropriate contacts between teachers, students and athletes, according to the court filing, and the middle school “was obligated to report what it knew about Chad Schacht to Sheldon High School.” The parties reached a settlement, with the Eugene School District 4J paying $450,000 and the Springfield School District paying $125,000, according to a story in The Register-Guard.

The Eugene School District faced another federal lawsuit filed in September 2012 by a representative for a student who was verbally harassed from sixth through eighth grade, frequently assaulted and targeted by other students as “gay” while not identifying as gay, according to the complaint. 

His mother contacted the district after other boys knocked him to the ground, nearly ran over him with their bikes, kicked him and threw a helmet at him while repeatedly calling him homophobic slurs, the court filing says.

The child “believed that there was no way to stop the harassment as it continued in spite of numerous previous reports to the District,” according to the complaint. He was diagnosed with depression, panic disorder and social phobia, often missing school “due to his anxiety and depression resulting from the hostile education environment within the District,” the filing says, and the district dropped him from enrollment as a result of his absences. The district paid $5,000 in a settlement, according to The Statesman Journal.

In January 2015, a parent filed a lawsuit against 4J on behalf of his son, alleging that he was beaten, strangled and injured by other students at Cal Young Middle School in 2014. The complaint says there was no adult supervision, security cameras “or any means to supervise the students” at any time in the area where it occurred, and that the district knew or should have known that the other students had a history of intimidating, harassing and assaulting younger students. The parties settled in 2016, according to The Register-Guard, with the district paying $15,000.

Another parent sued the Eugene District in September 2017 on behalf of her son in Lane County Circuit Court, alleging that a student assaulted him twice in one day at North Eugene High School. The district did not take reasonable steps to supervise its students, the complaint says, and the victim suffered a concussion, chronic headaches, memory loss, anxiety, “pain, discomfort and suffering,” loss of educational opportunities and interference with everyday activities. The district paid $24,000 in a settlement, according to The Register-Guard.

The most recent lawsuit against the district involving the alleged sexual assault is still pending.

“As a direct and foreseeable result” of the district’s and DHS’s negligence, the victim was unable to return to school, requires therapy and suffered emotional injury, mental anguish, embarrassment, shame, fear, hyperactivity, lack of focus, isolation, displacement from his school and peers, nightmares and sleep disruption, mistrust in the intentions of others, lack of self-esteem, depression, anxiety and other psychological trauma, the court document says. 

The parent suffered “additional economic damages of missed employment and using employer provided benefits to care for his son.”

The victim also underwent physical and psychological evaluations for sexual trauma and may require future medical treatment.

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