Douglas County School District

Victim's parents sue school district, leaders

Filing alleges reports pre-dating assaults were ignored by those in power

By Jane Reuter

The parents of a sexual assault victim filed a lawsuit June 16 against the Douglas County School District, former Rocky Heights Middle School principal Patricia Dierberger and former RHMS assistant principal James McMurphy.

The federal suit alleges Dierberger, McMurphy and "at least one other high-ranking DCSD administrator" ignored reports of predatory behavior toward the victim by former RHMS math teacher Richard Johnson, who is now serving a 20-year sentence for two counts of sexual exploitation on a child after agreeing to a plea deal last fall.

The reports pre-dated the start of the sexual relations between Johnson and the then-13-year-old victim, now a student at Rock Canyon High School.

The suit alleges Dierberger, McMurphy and others did not follow mandatory reporting obligations outlined by the state, and failed to protect the victim. The "high-ranking DCSD administrator" is not specifically identified in the court filing.

"Without notifying the appropriate law enforcement authorities and human resource officials and without any investigation, Principal Dierberger and Assistant Principal McMurphy ordered that the two African-American middle school students who initially reported Mr. Johnson's alleged sexual misconduct instead be punished with suspensions," the court filing reads.

It states parents and students reported "disturbing interactions" between the then eighth-grade student and Johnson "on several occasions during the 2010-11 academic year and the following summer." When the two students' initial reports were received in April 2011, "Mr. Johnson had not yet sexually assaulted (the victim) for the first time, but was still in the process of grooming her for his sexual purposes."

Johnson allegedly first assaulted the student in June 2011.

Dierberger and McMurphy no longer work at RMHS. McMurphy still works for the school district as principal of Ranch View Middle School. Both Rocky Heights and Ranch View middle schools are in Highlands Ranch.

Johnson, of Centennial, left the Douglas County School District in March 2012 after serving as both an eighth-grade teacher at Rocky Heights Middle and as a basketball coach at Rock Canyon High. He was arrested in connection with the sexual assaults in November 2012, after the victim and her parents reported him to the Douglas County Sheriff's Office.

"The district denies the material allegations of the complaint," DCSD spokeswoman Paula Hans wrote in an emailed response to Colorado Community Media. "Safety is our top priority in the Douglas County School District. Neither law enforcement nor prosecutors ever charged any district employee associated with this matter with failing to report child abuse when he or she had a reasonable basis to believe that such abuse was occurring.  

"There is an appropriate forum for resolving these matters, and the district looks forward to addressing the allegations in that forum."

The filing describes "specific, detailed and repeated reports" given to Dierberger, McMurphy and at least one other administrator, "including pleas by some parents to investigate Mr. Johnson's behavior with (the victim)."

It says Dierberger and McMurphy later admitted to a Douglas County Sheriff's detective they did not conduct any investigation, despite the repeated reports and widespread rumors.

It further states that McMurphy later told a sheriff's investigator "he questioned whether he could keep his employment with DCSD." However, "DCSD did not discipline assistant principal McMurphy, but instead allowed him to continue to serve as principal of Ranch View Middle School."

The suit also alleges that prior to August 2012, DCSD failed to instruct and train its employees in the proper way to handle reports of sexual misconduct. As a result, "DCSD created and fostered an environment that allowed Mr. Johnson to perpetrate and continue his repeated sexual abuse and sexual assaults ..."

The filing said Johnson sexually assaulted the victim dozens of times, "manipulated her by alienating her from religion, friends and family, sending her constant text messages, trying to control her schedule and demanding to know her whereabouts at all times, plying her with alcohol on several occasions and at least once physically abusing her by striking her."

Johnson allegedly also was "grooming additional, intended victims for his sexual purposes, including other DCSD students."

Johnson reportedly was fired in March 2012 after he was videotaped permitting a group of students to throw other students into the air and crash to the ground, "causing injury to one student and risking serious injury to others," the filing reads.

After he was fired, DCSD still did not initiate an investigation into Johnson's behavior, and he reportedly continued to assault the victim during the summer of 2012. She reported Johnson to her parents in fall 2012, and the family went to the sheriff's office, which initiated an investigation.

The complaint accuses DCSD of being "deliberately indifferent" through the inaction of its "various, high-ranking DCSD administrators" who were made aware of the problems.

The victim has suffered "severe emotional distress" that continues to impact her life, according to the filing.

Johnson was sentenced in November 2013.

The parents are asking for punitive damages and that the district institutes a comprehensive training policy on reporting procedures, ensuring all DSCD employees complete the annual training, adopt a zero-tolerance policy for failure to report such incidents and enact an annual review of DCSD's compliance by the sheriff's office.