Federal lawsuit: JCPS officials failed to prevent Knehans case

Defendant Christopher Knehans looks to the judge as he answers a series of questions in Circuit Court in February. He now faces a federal lawsuit filed by the victim.

Defendant Christopher Knehans looks to the judge as he answers a series of questions in Circuit Court in February. He now faces a federal lawsuit filed by the victim. Photo by Julie Smith.

A federal lawsuit accuses the Jefferson City Public Schools and two high school administrators from failing to keep band teacher Christopher Knehans from becoming involved with a student.

The suit, originally filed earlier this year, then amended this month, identifies the now former student only as “Jane Doe,” who graduated from Jefferson City High School last May.

The suit names Principal Paul Dodson and Assistant Principal Tammy Ridgeway as defendants, along with the district and Knehans.

The district’s attorney, Jefferson City lawyer Chris P. Rackers, provided a copy of the amended lawsuit and said district officials declined to comment on the litigation.

The 62-page lawsuit said because of Dodson’s and Ridgeway’s “decisions not to exercise authority to take corrective measures ... District officials were deliberately indifferent, at (Doe’s) expense, in the sense that they had actual knowledge of the initial sexual harassment, failed to prevent it for a substantial amount of time, exhibited willful blindness by not conducting investigations, and essentially ignored the complaints of all faculty, students and parents for a year.”

The lawsuit said Band Director Paul Hinman expressed concern to district officials and Knehans as early as

September 2010, based on various observations which “led him to believe in an improper and/or sexual relationship between Knehans and Doe, on a daily basis.”

Those observations included Knehans and the teen in Knehans’ office, with the door closed; Knehans talking with the girl on the high school’s front steps; walking her to the parking lot; “and student conversations regarding Knehans’ sexual interest in plaintiff.”

Nothing changed after Hinman confronted Knehans, the lawsuit said.

When Hinman got phone calls from parents, he reported the calls to Dodson and Ridgeway, the lawsuit said, but “District officials did not conduct any investigations to discover the truth of these allegations.”

The suit said Knehans and Doe were spotted by another student engaging in sexual activity at a local park on Aug. 25, 2011.

A parent called Dodson and Ridgeway about that incident, the suit said.

But Knehans wasn’t asked to write a statement about the situation until Sept. 26 and wasn’t interviewed by police until Sept. 27 — and then was arrested that night.

A year later, Knehans pleaded guilty in Cole County circuit court to two felony counts of sexual contact with a student.

Last February, Judge Dan Green sentenced Knehans to 60 days in jail for his guilty plea to the second count, and to three years supervised probation on the first count, with a suspended imposition of any sentence.

Any court finding that he violated the probation could result in a prison sentence of up to four years.

The federal lawsuit claims the district’s actions violated the girl’s 14th Amendment right to the equal protection of the law, and violated Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits schools from excluding students, on the basis of sex, from participating in activities that receive federal funds.

The suit argues the girl was “deprived of a normal childhood education,” has been “damaged by missed educational opportunities and her future earning capabilities have been damaged” by the school officials’ “conduct and the resulting hostile educational environment.”

Among its accusations, the 19-count lawsuit says the district, Dodson and Ridgeway failed to:

• Receive, investigate and act on complaints.

• Train teachers about sexual harassment of students.

• Supervise Knehans.

• Protect students from Knehans.

• Prevent Doe from suffering from emotional distress because of her contacts with Knehans.

The lawsuit said Doe seeks a federal jury trial, and judgments against the district, Dodson, Ridgeway and Knehans “for compensatory and punitive damages in an amount that is fair and reasonable,” plus costs and attorneys’ fees.

Columbia lawyer Thad Mulholland represents the teen.

Jefferson City lawyer Scott Hamblin represented Knehans in the state criminal case.

Neither could be reached Tuesday for a comment about the federal case.

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