Content warning: This story contains mentions of sexual assault.
The parents of a former Talawanda Middle School (TMS) student have filed a federal civil action lawsuit against the Talawanda Board of Education (BOE) for not ensuring the safety of their daughter, who was sexually assaulted by a staff member in 2021.
In the lawsuit, Talawanda BOE was named as an entity, but board members Patrick Meade, Rebecca Howard, Chad Otto, Kathleen Knight-Abowitz and David Bothast were also named individually. Michael Malone and Stephanie Aerni, the principal and vice principal of TMS respectively, and Ed Theroux, the superintendent of the Talawanda School District (TSD), were also named.
In the lawsuit, the student is identified by her initials, and her parents are identified by their first name and last initial. The parents demand a trial by jury and are not asking for a specific monetary amount.
“It’s impossible to know the full extent of harm, and you’re tethered to whatever you try to claim,” Austin LiPuma, the family’s attorney, said. “You never want to try to include an amount because it’s fluid.”
In December 2021, the student was inappropriately groped by her seventh-grade business fundamentals teacher, Paul Stiver. While students were playing a computer game at the end of the class period, Stiver approached the student’s desk and “placed his hand on the minor’s shoulder and upper back. He then proceeded to slide his hand down the front of her chest to grope the minor’s breast.”
After the incident, the student texted her older sister.
“‘Umm … Mr. Stiver just touch [sic] my shoulder and slide [sic] his hand down my chest …’” the text read according to the lawsuit.
Her sister told their parents about the incident, and they went to the school to meet their daughter.
The student reported the sexual assault to Malone, Areni and the director of Human Resources at the time, Dennis Malone. A criminal complaint was also filed with the Oxford Police Department (OPD).
In an article for The Miami Student in January 2022, Dustin L., the father of the student, said he felt the OPD investigation was poorly handled.
“It’s almost as if they don’t take the complaint seriously,” Dustin said at the time. “They’re saying ‘Yes, we believe you,’ but at the same time, they’re not willing to go out and do what needs to be done to stop it.”
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In the same interview, Dustin said he appreciated the efforts of the TMS administration and said Malone had gone out of his way several times to check on his daughter during the school day.
The BOE launched a Title IX investigation into the claim, and multiple students came forward revealing they were also sexually assaulted by Stiver. According to the complaint, students reported Stiver making “sexually inappropriate comments,” groping female students on the track team that he coached and sexually harassing students.
“Defendants had actual notice of Stiver’s sexual predation since 2014 and failed to appropriately intervene to prevent an identical sexual assault against M.L.,” the complaint reads.
On June 21, 2022, Stiver resigned from TMS. At the July 7, 2022, school board meeting, the BOE allowed Stiver to resign for “personal reasons.”
“You have an obligation to make sure your students have a safe environment to learn in,” LiPuma said. “So Title IX claims stem from that, which is just the right to be properly educated in a school setting.”
According to the complaint, the BOE’s decision to allow Stiver to resign, “robbed Plaintiffs of any potential justice against Stiver through the Title IX process, as he has never been sanctioned for his years of sexual misconduct against minor students at Talawanda Middle School.”
The complaint also says the lack of acknowledgment of Stiver’s actions subjected the students and other victims to bullying and public humiliation.
“Due to the sexual assault and subsequent harassment M.L. suffered an extremely hostile educational environment at Talawanda Middle School,” the complaint says.
In April 2022, the student left TMS and was homeschooled. According to the lawsuit, because she was homeschooled, the student “suffered academic and social delays” and became isolated. The student also began to self-harm and has had suicidal ideation.
On July 8, 2022, Theroux sent an email to the family and acknowledged that their “trauma is real,” and there will be “lifelong consequences.”
In December 2022, the parents sued Stiver at the state level for the same incident and a settlement is currently being decided, according to Butler County court records.
LiPuma said the plaintiffs are currently waiting for a response from the defendants. Because it is a civil action lawsuit, LiPuma said it is hard to tell how long the case will take.
Holli Hansel, director of communications and public engagement for TSD, said the district does not comment on open cases and litigation.