Lawsuit accuses teacher of sexually assaulting 3rd-grader in Bell County

bell co. schools chief among those named

bestep@herald-leader.comNovember 1, 2011 

The Bell County school superintendent failed to notify authorities, as required by law, about an alleged sexual assault of a third-grader by a teacher, a federal lawsuit claims.

Superintendent George Thompson also helped remove documents that could have been used in a legal case against former teacher Travis Phipps, the lawsuit alleges.

Lexington attorney Daniel Luke Morgan filed the lawsuit in federal court in London last week for the mother and father of the boy who was allegedly assaulted several years ago. The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, identified the family only by the initials C.K. and J.K., and their son as A.K.

The suit is against Phipps; Thompson; Patricia Howard, former principal at Frakes Elementary School; Donna Phipps, who is Travis Phipps' mother; the Bell County school board; and unnamed people.

Thompson said Monday that Phipps has not taught in the school system for about a year. Thompson declined to comment on the claims in the lawsuit.

Phipps has not been criminally charged with sexually assaulting the boy. Efforts to locate Phipps for comment on Monday were not successful.

The alleged abuse happened in the 2002-03 school year, when A.K. was eight years old and Phipps was a substitute teacher.

The claims in the lawsuit include that Phipps assaulted the boy and violated his right to be free from abuse; that the school board, Thompson and Howard failed to adequately supervise Phipps; and that the board failed to put adequate policies in place to protect children.

Phipps allegedly sexually assaulted the boy while they were in a bathroom, according to the lawsuit. On another occasion, Phipps fondled the boy, the lawsuit alleges.

Phipps threatened to hurt the boy if he told about the attacks, the lawsuit says.

The suit says parents told Howard, the principal that year, that Phipps frequently yelled at students, telling them he was their worst nightmare, the lawsuit says.

Parents also told Howard about concerns that Phipps often had boys sit on his lap, the lawsuit says.

None of those reports are still in Phipps' personnel file, the lawsuit says. Howard could not be reached Monday evening for comment.

A.K. became withdrawn during his third-grade year, but he did not disclose that he had allegedly been abused by a teacher at Frakes until the spring of 2010, according to the lawsuit.

He has been under the care of mental-health professionals for years, and told a counselor Phipps was the person who had abused him, the lawsuit said.

A.K. has suffered severe psychological damage and physical harm as a result of the abuse by Phipps, the lawsuit says.

The boy's parents met with Thompson and another school official last year and disclosed the alleged abuse by Phipps, the lawsuit says.

Thompson expressed concern about taking action against Phipps, saying he might sue, and he did not tell authorities about the claim of abuse, the lawsuit says.

A.K.'s counselor, however, did notify authorities, and state police and social workers began investigating last year, the lawsuit says.

In March 2011, a social worker notified Phipps that the allegation of sexual abuse against him had been substantiated based on the victim's credible, consistent statements.

The letter, which is part of the lawsuit, said Phipps could request a hearing to contest the finding.

Phipps asked for a hearing, though he later asked to cancel it and a new hearing has not been scheduled, the lawsuit says.

Before the initial hearing date, Thompson and Donna Phipps, who is Travis Phipps' mother and works in the school-board office, went to Frakes Elementary after school hours and left with a box, the lawsuit says.

Thompson later told the boy's mother he had helped get Travis Phipps' personnel records to prepare for the hearing, even though Thompson had access to Phipps' file at the school-board office, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit charges that Thompson and Donna Phipps took the records in order to remove documents from her son's file, which prevented them from being used in the complaint.

The lawsuit also argues the board was negligent to hire Thompson as superintendent after state authorities disciplined him in connection with a cheating scandal when he was principal at Bell County High School.

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