Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Sworn testimony: Fear of lawsuit caused CJ superintendent to drop anti-bullying efforts

Carl Junction R-1 officials shut down meetings of an anti-bullying task force because they were afraid it would make them look bad in the lawsuit filed against them by the parents of a junior high student who committed suicide.

They also stopped a survey being taken through the Talk About It program because it had "poor questions" and because the results might be used against them in the legal action.

Those revelations were made by Superintendent Phil Cook during an April 16 video deposition taken as part of the lawsuit filed against the district by Jessica and Mika Nugent.

In that deposition, Cook also revealed the following:

-He has not seen any incidents of bullying in his 17 years in the district.

-Videotapes of the bus where the Nugents' son was bullied are not available. The cameras malfunctioned, Cook said, because he and other district officials did not know you had to do maintenance on them.

-The district is fighting bullying, if any bullying it taking place, Cook says, with a new program that encourages students to be nice to each other.

-Parents move their children to Carl Junction because the children have been bullied in other area school districts.

-Cook does not read the district's Facebook site or any other Facebook page, so he did not know about all of the talk about the bullying teenager Luke Nugent suffered through, but Cook maintains a Facebook account for his friends. He also does not read comments on Joplin Globe stories about the Carl Junction School District.

Cook, who was talking so fast the stenographer had to ask him to slow down, started the deposition by trying to distance himself from being responsible for enforcing district anti-bullying policies.

"Not every policy," he said. "I have other people under me that I supervise and then they have other people under them that they supervise."

Cook, who has been with the R-1 District for 17 years, said that prior to him becoming superintendent nine years ago, he had never received reports about bullying.

The Nugents' lawyer later asked him, "Do you have an opinion as to whether or not in your nine years as superintendent bullying has taken place within the school district"

"I don't know."

He later added that bullying is a concern everywhere, but he did not know of anything specific.

Bus Videotaping

On the subject of bus videotaping, Cook said the video system was set up on the cheap by a district employee who said he could take the parts and put them together and save the district money.

"We piloted it and it was a good system, so we went ahead and put it in the rest of the buses."

When it came time to find video footage centering on the bullying on Luke Nugent's bus, that was when district officials found out that the system did not work and discovered that to keep it working they should have been doing proper maintenance on it.

Bullying Task Force

The Bullying Task Force created another set of problems, according to Cook's testimony. The task force was formed after Luke Nugent's suicide, but instead of placing Cook, an assistant superintendent, or one of the principals in charge, the group was headed by the district's public relations director Tracy Skaggs.

"Why was she the leader," Cook was asked.

"I don't- I don't know. She was the one that helped gather all of the information, kind of helped run the meetings, form the agendas, helped organize some of the subcommittees."

She did all of the work to make sure the meetings ran smoothly, Cook said, adding, "We all played a pretty active role. It was- it was open for anyone to-- discuss and who had comments."

Reed indicated that the task force never really discussed much in its three meetings, because it was mostly organizing and splitting into subcommittees."

Cook acknowledged that he was the one who put an end to the task force shortly after it started. "Well, we already knew we had a lawsuit when we started the task force. But as we got into it, we didn't want to do something that came back and said, 'Well, you guys were reactionary and did this or that.'
'"We feel like as a district we've done quite a bit to address bullying and train people in bullying."

Rachel's Challenge

One of the programs the district implemented, Cook said, was "Rachel's Challenge," named after Rachel Scott, who was murdered during the April 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

The program uses her writings "to go into schools and create an environment of caring and love," Cook said.

"It's not so much an anti-bullying as it is just an acceptance and caring and--for other people. We actually had already contacted them and were planning to bring that in for our opportunities prior to Luke committing suicide."

Rachel's Challenge, Cook said, "is to live a life that's caring and loving of others, accepting of others."


Area social media exploded following the death of Luke Nugent, but Phil Cook did not know anything about that, according to his deposition.

Cook said he was anywhere before it was filed that the Nugents might file a lawsuit against him.

"Just because of the national attention to suicides and--and I'm also aware-- I did not read personally the Facebook posts, but there were a lot of Facebook posts out there that immediately said he was being bullied.

"Not, like I said, I did not read, I did not read any of them. But with what's happened with the country and litigation with--with students who committed suicide or people who commit suicide and the connection to bullying, I knew there was a possibility."

Later in the deposition, Cook said, "I just don't look at Facebook. I have a Facebook account. It's only for my friends. I have got a personal belief that Facebook is good in some respects, but in other respects, it just gives people an open forum to say what they want to and there's not necessarily any truth to it. So I do not use that as a factual source of data."

"You don't even look at it," Cook was asked.

"I do not look at our school Facebook account; no, I do not.

"I have never looked at it."

The lawsuit says that the district's failure to act to prevent the bullying of Luke Nugent led to his April 2013 suicide.

The nine-count lawsuit was initially filed in Jasper County Circuit Court, but has been removed to federal court.

Listed as defendants in the lawsuit are  Cook, Carl Junction High School Principal Scott Sawyer, assistant principals Trevor Chase and Theresa Wilson, counselor Ben Withers, compliance officer Gary Reed, and bus driver David Roughton.

The petition details a year-long harassment of the teen after he came out as bisexual.

:After coming out (he) was "the subject of ridicule, harassment, torment and bullying" that took place both at school and on the bus, the petition says, including the use of a number of derogatory terms and obscene references.

"The ridicule, harassment, torment and bullying suffered by (him) also included, but was not limited to students physically threatening (him) as well as stealing and/or destroying his personal property."

The harassment on the bus was reported to Roughton and Withers and the teen's parents also reported it to school officials, including Sawyer, who relayed the report to Wilson, according to the petition.

"At one point in the fall of 2012, and in response to the ridicule, harassment, torment, and bullying, Defendant Sawyer rode the bus for one day to monitor the behavior. While riding the bus, he was told by a student to "clean my butt."

The lawsuit says Sawyer "failed to immediately discipline or rebuke this student in front of the other students." After his day of riding the bus, the harassment continued.

The teen's parents again contacted school officials about the problem. The lawsuit says Sawyer said that protecting the teen from the harassment was a "fight worth fighting," and that he would "keep an eye out for him."

That did not happen, the lawsuit claims. "By March 2013, students were telling (him) to hang himself and regularly threatening to beat him up."

The parents once again met with Sawyer in March 2013 to let him know that nothing had changed and their son was still being tormented.

"Defendant Sawyer acknowledged that he was aware that the bus was as bad or worse than it had ever been, yet he did nothing about it."

That lack of action, the petition says, "caused or contributed to cause (the teen) to suffer severe emotional distress, filling him with despair and hopelessness. Defendants' ongoing refusal to do anything but empower (his) tormentors forced him to seek escape elsewhere.

"March 14, 2013, was the last day of classes before spring break. After (he) had been dropped off at his bus stop, a student yelled out the window for (him) to 'do everyone a favor and hang himself.'

"On March 15, 2013, (he) spent a final day with his friends and family.

"On the morning of March 16, 2013, (his) parents found him hanging in his bedroom."

The suit alleges that district officials violated the Missouri Safe Schools Act by witnessing crimes that would be considered third degree assault and not reporting them, as well as a Title IX sexual harassment violation, "based on (the teen's) perceived sexual orientation."

The lawsuit says the district knew which students were causing the problems "and it was readily foreseeable that this abuse would continue into the future and refused to do anything (about it)." which "left him at the mercy of his bullies."

The problem with the bullies was not just limited to the teen who committed suicide, the petition says. "Concerned parents of other children in the school district repeatedly complained to the school district about the bullying problem."***
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Anonymous said...

Sounds like CJ Schools need a new superintendent & principal. They need to quit trying to cover their butts & realize they have a serious problem & that an innocent child has lost their life!

I think the school should investigate & hold the kids that were doing the bullying accountable as well as their parents. They both need to know that they contributed to another childs death.

Anonymous said...

Sadly it is still going on and stuck nothing is done. Intermediate school one of the worse the principle and vice principle need to.get out. They refuse to.do anything about bullying and teacher do.it too

Anonymous said...

First of all, Phil Cook is just as much of a politician and snake as CJ Huff. He knew of the bullying-he knows everything going on at that school district. I cannot believe he threw Tracie Skaggs under the bus !!! what a creep. She works hard, has been a loyal employee and is in charge of communications at the school.

By the way- Phill Cook records most conversations he has with staff and in meetings. THere will be both recorded documentation as well as written documentation of these incidents.

Numerous reports of bullying by both students and teachers have been reported.

I hope people come forward and provide the Nugents with whatever information they need.

Harassment is wide spread at CJ.

Anonymous said...

What allot the bully reports they have used for 5 years. I had a meeting with the asst. Principal and told that my kids getting hit everyday was not bullying. I have ever email if the family v would like them.

Anonymous said...

In the words of Sgt. Shultz, "I know nothing, I see nothing!

Anonymous said...

I used to work for the Carl Junction schools. In the 4 years I was employed with them I was sexy ally harassed by a fellow teacher. After reporting it, I was told it would be taken care of. Nothing was ever done. The harassment continued until the day it became physical and I immediately resigned. I was not the only person this teacher victimized. This person even physically harmed another staff member in front of students and nothing was done. After speaking to an attorney, we were told that nothing would be done by the school or the law because the offender in this case is Transgender ed and no one wanted to take that on. It's sad and pathetic that students and staff can't feel safe at these schools. The administration is completely corrupt and only cares about what is best for them.

Anonymous said...

what about this bullying..... So Phil Cook didn't know about this either??? HMMMMM

Student claims he was assaulted by another student at bus stop

Updated: Apr 03, 2014 4:53 PM CDT
By Jordan Aubey, ReporterCONNECT


Anonymous said...

Please spend just a moment to check your spelling, folks. It's hard to take you seriously when you don't spell words correctly.

Anonymous said...

He also turned a blind eye when parents went to him over concerns with the PTO president showing up at pto events at the school while drinking and/or under the influence. His way of handling this was to dissolve the pto completely and take away all the events that they sponsored and raised $$ for the students and teachers.

Anonymous said...

There is also a very serious drug problem in the Carl Junction junior high and high school. You'd be surprised at how many students are on drugs.

Anonymous said...

Parents are responsible for how their kids act. They shouldn't blame the school.

Anonymous said...

@9:17 Pity you feel spelling is more important than the issues being discussed. This is a very serious subject- don't minimize it by devaluing experiences of others.

And show some respect ! The Nugents lost their only child

SMH - some people !

Anonymous said...

I don't think for a minute that parents whose children are bullied hold the schools and teachers solely responsible. This is a social problem and it will take co-operation, education, and compassion to create an environment in our public schools that are safe learning places for children. The old saying "it takes a village to raise a child" rings true on so many levels ... However, the superintendent's testimony shows how the school administration wishes to move forward - by lying and hiding and neglecting the very core of the bullying issue and by denying the children at CJ school district opportunities to become up-standers for those who are picked on, ridiculed, or harmed physically and emotionally. There is a plethora of anti-bullying programs - just pick one and implement it to improve the lives of these young people. A child' s untimely death under these circumstances is one too many. When is the superintended planning on resigning? I hope that the good people of CJ will throw him out of office!

Anonymous said...

t was just another day in the life of any school in America the kid that hung himself obviously had some mental problems now the parents want to cash in

Anonymous said...

why do you think he had a mental problem. He was 14 and getting bullied, tried to get help but didn't get any. You f'n idiot!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for saying this!