Officials at Fairview High School in Boulder knew during the 2016-2017 school year that a student athlete was accused of raping at least two other students, but failed to investigate and did nothing to protect students from facing a hostile environment at school, two former students allege in a federal lawsuit filed Friday.
Fairview High leaders fostered a school culture that was permissive of sexual assault and mistreated victims, the women claim in the lawsuit, filed against the Boulder Valley School District and Fairview Principal Don Stensrud. The school and Stensrud “repeatedly turned a blind eye to rampant sexual harassment and abuse,” the lawsuit states.
Neither Stensrud nor the Boulder Valley School District immediately responded to requests for comment sent Friday afternoon by The Denver Post.
The litigation comes four months after Fairview’s former star quarterback, Aidan Atkinson, was acquitted of sexually assaulting two students but pleaded guilty to harassment in a more than year-long saga that riveted the school community and propelled a student-led movement to change the way the school responds to assault allegations, particularly against athletes.
The allegations in the lawsuit involve a lacrosse player who was a sophomore during the 2016-2017 school year. In January, he was charged with eight counts of sexual assault, kidnapping and two counts of domestic violence in connection with the alleged assaults of three Fairview students, according to the lawsuit.
The Post is not identifying the athlete, who is now an adult, because he was a minor at the time of the alleged crimes and has been charged in Boulder County juvenile court. The case is pending, and juvenile court records can’t be reviewed because they are secret under state law.
The Post also does not identify victims of sexual assault, and neither the women nor the athlete are named in the lawsuit.
Ostraciziation and victim-blaming
One of the women who is suing, identified in the lawsuit as Jane Doe, said she was at a Halloween party in 2016 with the athlete, whom she was dating, when he forced her into a closet and raped her. The woman, who was a sophomore at the time, burst out of the closet sobbing; her boyfriend emerged “visibly enraged” and punched a wall, according to the lawsuit.
The woman broke up with the athlete the next day, but rumors spread across the school about an assault because students had witnessed the aftermath, the lawsuit says, and the woman faced retaliation.
“Because (the accused) was a popular student athlete at (Fairview), Ms. Doe quickly became the target of victim-blaming, was ostracized by her classmates and harassed by (his) friends,” the lawsuit reads.
The woman told a school counselor, and then a Boulder police school resource officer about the assault. She struggled in school as bullying escalated, but school officials did not open a Title IX investigation, even though the woman’s accusation was at least the second against the athlete the school was aware of, the lawsuit says.
Another student, who is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said she was raped by the athlete in October 2015, the lawsuit says. That student’s mother reported the alleged assault to the school when she became aware of it some months after the incident.
Stensrud told the woman who said she was assaulted at the Halloween party that he believed there were “three or four” other victims of the athlete, the lawsuit alleges.
The rumors of sexual misconduct by the athlete became so pervasive at the school that in February 2017, a student created an Instagram account that portrayed the athlete as a “rapist,” according to the lawsuit.
The account was widely shared, and when school officials found out about it, they disciplined the student who created the account but did not investigate the accusations against the athlete, the lawsuit says.
The school principal, Stensrud, told the students and their parents who reported the allegations or asked for help dealing with the harassment from other students that the school couldn’t do anything unless a victim pursued criminal charges with Boulder police or sought a formal restraining order, the lawsuit says.
“That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the law and the school’s responsibilities, and maybe more than anything, that is something that they need to change immediately,” said the women’s attorney, John Clune.
Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and requires schools that receive federal funding to investigate and remedy hostile educational environments, among other obligations.
In the case of the woman who said she was raped at the Halloween party, school officials requested that the woman change her schedule or attend school online to avoid the athlete but did not require him to change his schedule, the lawsuit says. When she struggled to complete assignments, function in school or even get out of her car and walk into the building at the start of the school day, she was punished with detention for being late and other sanctions, the lawsuit says.
“A historical, cultural problem”
In May 2017, the second woman involved in the lawsuit said she went with the athlete to a baseball dugout during a choir concert, where they began to kiss. The athlete asked the woman, who was a freshman at the time, to perform oral sex and she refused. He forced her to do so, and then raped her, the lawsuit says.
The student did not report the assault to authorities until 2019, but the day after the attack, Fairview’s dean of students asked a friend of hers if the friend knew about a student who “got hurt at the choir concert,” the lawsuit says.
During the summer of 2017, school officials negotiated with the athlete’s family to allow the teenager to transfer to a private boarding school in Maine, without any notes on his disciplinary record, the lawsuit says.
The incident is part of a larger “toxic culture” of sexism and minimization of reports of sex crimes, the lawsuit alleges.
Stensrud and an unnamed athletic department administrator previously made statements that blamed girls for being victims of sexual assault and the administrator told other Fairview staff members that “boys could not be expected to behave because of the pressure they were under and all of the pornography they watched,” the lawsuit states. Stensrud also repeatedly referred to female administrators, police officers and teachers as “girls,” according to the complaint.
One former Fairview school administrator was criminally charged in 2020 with failing to report suspected child abuse after failing to act after a female student reported a male student had sexually assaulted her, the lawsuit states. The misdemeanor charge was dismissed the week after it was filed, court records show.
The women who filed the lawsuit are seeking monetary damages. They can’t sue for institutional changes because they’re no longer students, Clune said, but still hope to push for reforms at Fairview High School.
“Their biggest concern is that there is a historical, cultural problem within the high school,” he said. “And more than anything, that is what they are hoping to help correct.”
Denver Post reporter Elise Schmelzer contributed to this report.
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