Parents accuse Utah school of retaliating against son after child said principal sexually abused him

Following the allegation, their son’s special education services were cut, the parents said in a new lawsuit filed against Park City School District. They also allege the school never reported the allegation to police.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Park City School District offices in Park City on Tuesday, March 22, 2022, shown after Summit County attorneys announced charges against the district for allegedly failing to report child abuse in three cases.

Update: After a judge reviewed their claims, he dismissed this lawsuit on Tuesday, March 14, 2023.

When her son told her that he had been sexually abused by his principal, the Park City mom immediately called his school to report it.

She recounted what her kindergartner had told her — that he had been called into the principal’s office after school and instructed by the male administrator to pull down his own pants. The boy alleged the principal then touched him.

The mom said she spoke to four different school officials. Those conversations included a discussion with the school psychologist and a confrontation with the principal. All of them, she said, brushed her off. She said the principal told her the boy had a “vivid imagination.”

None of them reported the alleged assault to police to investigate — as they are supposed to do in any case involving child abuse allegations as mandatory reporters in Utah.

Instead, the mom alleges, the school retaliated against her son for speaking about the alleged assault.

In a lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court, the boy’s parents argue the northern Utah school began punishing the boy after his parents raised concerns by taking away special education services, which he needed in order to learn. He has been diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia (a disability that affects writing), as well as speech and language delays.

The family is now suing Park City School District, as well as the principal, who remains listed as the head of the school on its website. They have also named the superintendent, the school board and the staff members with whom the mom spoke when reporting the allegation from her son.

The filing additionally alleges that the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, which the mom said later learned of the allegation, also failed to report it to law enforcement. A spokesperson there declined to comment on this story, citing the pending litigation as well as “state law regarding client confidentiality.”

School district has been accused of ‘systemic and institutional failure’

Earlier this year, prior to the lawsuit, the Summit County Attorney’s Office had already filed misdemeanor charges against Park City School District for failing to report child abuse to the proper authorities, as required by law for school officials, in three different cases.

The family that filed suit last week is one of those cases cited by the county attorney as an example of “systemic and institutional failure” there.

Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson has said that investigators believe there could be more cases, too, in which the school district apparently failed to report abuse. There has not yet been a hearing on the charges.

In the Park City principal case, the parents argue that the district similarly never contacted the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission, or UPPAC, which investigates allegations of school staff misconduct in the state — and can, depending on the findings, revoke a teaching license. Districts are obligated under law to report if they have evidence of a possible violation.

Every possible referral for investigation or intervention failed, the family argues in the lawsuit.

UPPAC spokesperson Ben Rasmussen confirmed that the commission does not have any referrals for misconduct for the principal regarding this instance of alleged sex abuse.

The principal has one previous case with UPPAC for a reported violation from six years ago related to having an animal in a restricted area and providing false information to law enforcement. He pleaded no contest to those criminal charges in court, and the records were expunged after he completed community service.

The Salt Lake Tribune is not naming the principal or the school because he has not been charged with child abuse. The Summit County criminal case is currently filed against the district, rather than individuals, though a prosecutor said charges against specific staff members may come later. Olson said Friday, though, that her office could not substantiate any abuse by the principal and does not plan to pursue a case against him.

The principal did not return a request for comment from The Tribune.

A school district spokesperson declined to comment. Other school officials that The Tribune reached out to, including Superintendent Jill Gildea, did not respond.

Erin Grady, president of the Park City school board, also declined to answer a question about whether the school ever looked into the boy’s allegations.

The Tribune has agreed not to name the parents in this case to protect their privacy, as well as their son, who is a minor; they declined to speak further about the details beyond what was in the court filing. The parents are currently petitioning the court to have the case proceed anonymously.

The alleged abuse

The lawsuit states that the boy, who started kindergarten in fall 2019, has difficultly writing his ABCs and spelling his name. Previously in preschool, a teacher determined that he had learning disabilities that required an Individualized Education Plan, or an IEP, that lays out what additional services are needed from a school to help a student progress. His pediatrician also came to the same conclusion.

Based on those documents provided by the parents, Park City planned to offer the boy 120 minutes of speech services each month to help with his language development.

Then, roughly two months into the school year, around Oct. 23, 2019, the lawsuit states that the boy told his mom the principal had abused him during an after-school program. He would have been 4 years old at the time.

The mom said that at first she was shocked to hear it, so she had her son repeat what he said while she recorded audio of it, a portion of which is quoted in the complaint.

With that recording, the mom went to staff at the school to report the allegation. She spoke with a school nurse, a school psychologist, the director of special education and the principal. She said each official quickly dismissed her, saying they would tell an employee in the superintendent’s office but they believed the story was made up.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson pictured on Sept. 14, 2021.

The lawsuit accuses the school of doing nothing to investigate. There is no incident report, according to Summit County attorneys.

After that, the boy’s parents said they reported to the school several times over the next few months that their son was being bullied by classmates because of his speech delays. He was punched in the face so hard he lost his sight for four days, ending up in Primary Children’s Hospital, according to documents in the court filing. He was kicked, choked, hit on the head, pinned to the ground and threatened with a knife, the parents said.

They sent pictures and emails and doctor notes, the complaint states.

The school, they said, never told them about any of these events; they only heard about them from their son. And when the parents asked administrators to look into it, they said, they were brushed off. The school never talked to their son to investigate, the lawsuit says.

The school also did not create any incident reports from these allegations, according to the lawsuit.

The mom began to feel that the school was ignoring her and her son’s concerns because of their abuse allegation against the principal. When she brought that up, she said, school administrators ended their meeting and asked her to leave.

Worsening test scores

While that was happening, the school continued to send home notices that the boy was “below level” or “well below level” in his learning, according to the lawsuit.

The parents asked the school if they could add emotional support services to his IEP, they said, because of the bullying. The request were denied, the complaint states.

At the next IEP meeting in fall 2020, when the boy was entering first grade, the school decided to cut his language services in half, to 60 minutes per month, despite his failing grades. That came after his first-of-the-year reading test said he needed “intensive” interventions, according to the documents provided to the court.

His parents didn’t understand why the services were being trimmed when he was performing worse. They believe it was retaliation.

Over the next two years, while the boy was in first and second grade, the parents paid for private speech and language evaluations that showed again that he had major deficits in learning. They provided them to the school, which they say refused to bolster his services.

At one point, the lawsuit states, school staff suggested that the boy should transfer to a different school.

The parents tried filing a complaint with the Utah State Board of Education, which was dismissed for too little evidence. Nothing changed, according to the lawsuit.

The boy started refusing to go to school, afraid of being bullied. His seizures that had gone into remission reappeared with the stress, the lawsuit states. And his mom, who stayed home to help her son, said she lost her job because of it.

A doctor reports, and police investigate

In November 2021 — two years after the alleged sex abuse — the parents took their son to a neurologist for help with his seizures. During that meeting, the boy apparently brought up the abuse incident with the principal, telling the doctor what happened.

The doctor reported it to both law enforcement and the Division of Child and Family Services, as required. It marked the first time police learned about the allegation, according to the Summit County Attorney’s Office.

The Park City Police Department and the Summit County Sheriff’s Office are currently investigating.

Law enforcement subpoenaed documents about the 2019 allegation and found no evidence that the school district investigated it, according to a news conference this year.

That subpoena did turn up documents from October 2021 that show a district employee knew they were legally required to report the allegation and discussed it with the parent in an email.

“My school psychologist colleague brought up that, as mandated report[ers], we are obligated to report any (time) abuse is suspect or known of,” the staffer wrote, as quoted in the charging documents. “Since this happened two years ago, I don’t want to stir up things that were resolved already, but I also do not want to ignore potential issues that could still be a concern. I do not want to make any assumptions so please let me know if it is a current concern.”

But the staffer reportedly didn’t go anywhere from there, according to the Summit County charges announced in March.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Park City School District offices, front, on Tuesday, March 22, 2022.

In November 2021, DCFS also started to get involved by speaking to Park City School District Superintendent Jill Gildea.

Gildea said she knew about the 2019 allegation and that it had been resolved, according to a statement from Summit County attorneys. She also told them to talk to a different staffer with knowledge of the situation; that person did not return calls from police.

She also told investigators that it was up to “the parents” to report allegations of child abuse to police or child protective services, charging documents state. When the investigator “inquired further,” Gildea said she “did not know because she wasn’t working at the district in 2019.”

Gildea began working as the school district’s superintendent in August 2018. She did not return a direct request for comment from The Tribune for this story.

DCFS also spoke to the boy. It is not clear if the department finished an investigation. The lawsuit claims it did not.

Because of the delayed investigation, law enforcement was unable to determine if the alleged assault occurred. While the lawsuit laments that, it states: “The bigger issue is the failure to report.”

More cases and calls for reform

Since the law enforcement investigation began, officers have documented two additional cases where Park City School District employees allegedly knew about abuse but did not report to police.

In March, a parent told police that their son had been raped by another student. Summit County charging documents state that a school district employee heard about the alleged rape from a student and told the child’s parents afterward but did not tell proper authorities.

Law enforcement also learned that in December 2021, the Park City School District learned another student was accused of raping a female classmate. Police received documents that show a school employee interviewed the students and later held a mediation with the children and their parents but also did not report it to authorities.

Summit County prosecutors have encouraged district parents who fear school officials may not have properly reported allegations to authorities to call Utah Child Protective Services at 855-323-3237 or Summit County dispatchers at 435-615-3600.

The boy in the parents’ lawsuit has since finished second grade. But his parents say he is far behind his classmates in all subjects. They say he doesn’t want to attend school.

They are suing for violation of disability protections, as well as deprivation of rights and child neglect.

The parents are asking the courts to order a thorough investigation of all possible cases like theirs in the district. They also are calling for the staff members who allegedly ignored their son’s case to be fired from the elementary school, for all employees in the district to be trained on reporting child abuse and for other financial damages to be awarded by a judge.

And they want their son to be offered the special education services they say he has needed but has been denied.