Victims in teacher sex case suing Nevada school district
RENO, Nev. (AP) — Victims of a former teacher convicted of having sex with students, including one teen who killed himself last year, have filed a lawsuit against the school district.
The lawsuit says Elko County school officials should have acted quicker to protect the students and terminate Tennille Whitaker, who taught elementary school for 11 years. She pleaded no contest last April to four counts of sexual conduct between a school employee and a pupil and is serving a 20-year sentence.
Prosecutors said Whitaker, 41, sexually harassed, molested and abused at least four high school boys who were serving as teaching aides in the fourth-grade class she taught at Wells Combined School about 60 miles (95 kilometers) west of the Utah line. At least one had been a student in her fourth-grade class years earlier.
The suit filed March 9 in U.S. District Court in Reno on behalf of one of the victims and the estate of another seeks unspecified damages. It names principal Christopher McAnany as a defendant along with the school district.
The lawsuit says school officials "intentionally ignored multiple complaints regarding Whitaker that allowed Whitaker to sexually harass, molest and abuse children for several years." She gave them gifts, provided at least one alcohol in exchange for sexual gratification both on and off campus and sometimes drove them to hotels, the lawsuit said.
School district supervisory personnel and administration "had actual knowledge of Whitaker's history of 'grooming'" and abusing minor students between September 2015 and June 2017, the suit said.
It said the district had a duty to protect the victims, but instead responded with "deliberate indifference to this known and obvious danger," and later "suppressed, concealed or failed to disclose this information."
As a result, the victims suffered fear, anxiety, mental and emotional distress, embarrassment, lack of self-esteem, disgrace and humiliation. One was so traumatized he moved away from Wells days after his high school graduation last year and in August 2018 killed himself.
McAnany didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. District Superintendent Todd Pehrson said district officials cannot comment on pending litigation.
"We follow our policies and procedures. The safety of our students is our number one concern at all times," Pehrson said in an email to The Associated Press.
During her sentencing last October, Whitaker asked for forgiveness and tearfully apologized to the victims and their families.
"I will be ashamed forever," she said, according to the Elko Daily Free Press . "I am truly sorry for betraying the trust of the parents and the victims."
School officials first were alerted to rumors of the activity by a parent in May or June 2016, the lawsuit said.
The Elko County sheriff's office initiated an investigation in October 2016 when another teacher advised McAnany about concerns. In February 2017, a custodian was alarmed when he came upon her with a student in her classroom with the lights off and the door locked, and another teacher reported a month later she had a Snapchat photo which showed Whitaker was having sex with minor students, the suit said.
"Had defendants made such disclosure/notifications in a timely manner, plaintiffs and their parents would have been in a position to prevent the abuse of plaintiffs or at least prevent the continued abuse."
It wasn't until Whitaker's arrest on June 5, 2017, that she was placed on administrative leave, the suit said. She resigned two months later.