Feds look into SAD 17 sex harassment claims

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OXFORD – A federal civil rights agency is investigating claims by a Norway couple that school officials failed to appropriately investigate alleged harassment of their daughter by several second-grade students at the Paris Elementary School.

In a letter dated July 13, Martin and Liesha Petrovich were informed by civil rights attorney Donna Russell that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has accepted their complaint for resolution.

“We didn’t know what to do,” said Martin Petrovich of the action he and his wife has taken. That includes asking that Paris Elementary School Principal Jane Fahey be terminated from her job.

“We want a safe environment,” Petrovich said.

Russell said the SAD 17 school district is subject to the provisions of federal law because it receives federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education.

In her June 13 letter to the Petrovichs, Russell said the OCR for Region 1, which is based in Boston and covers New England, will investigate whether the district failed to respond appropriately when notified of alleged sexual harassment. The school district could risk losing substantial federal aid should it be found in violation of federal law and non-responsive to enforcement action.

The school district was asked to supply undisclosed information about the allegations. Russell said additional information may be requested and OCR investigators may visit the district to review records and interview staff.

“We have not responded yet. We have until the end of the month,” said SAD 17 Curriculum Director Kathy Elkins, speaking for Superintendent Mark Eastman, who was on vacation.

The Petrovichs, who live in Norway, say their 7-year-old daughter was subject to continued harassment by several second-grade boys starting last fall, including harassment of a sexual nature. Liesha Petrovich has said her daughter was so traumatized that she had to be pulled out of school in May.

School officials notified second-grade parents in March that they had received several complaints from children and parents about inappropriate behavior among students in one second-grade classroom. Problems included use of profane language and “very disgusting topics.” In May, Principal Fahey sent another letter stating that the school was investigating continued problem behavior both in the school and on the school bus, including an alleged assault.

School officials later said that disciplinary action was taken against several second-grade boys, but that no evidence could be found that a reported sexual assault of boy on a school bus by two second-grade students had occurred.

The Petrovichs and a small group of other parents continued to press school officials for action as the school year came to a close. They said they were not satisfied with the results, which included an investigation by police and school officials, formation of a committee to review school policies and the latest action this week to hire an independent third party to investigate how the situation was handled.

David Thomas, spokesman for the Department of Education in Washington, said Tuesday that similar investigations generally take about six months to complete, but may take longer.

The ORC determines if it will take a case based on criteria ranging from jurisdiction to whether another agency or court has already looked at the case.

According to OCR regulations, if the agency finds insufficient evidence to support an allegation, the case is closed. If cause is found against the school, the OCR will negotiate a voluntary agreement to settle the case, then monitor the agreement.

If a school refuses a settlement, the OCR can suspend, terminate or refuse to grant federal funding to the district or refer the case to the U.S. Department of Justice for action.

Complainants have the right to file suit in federal court regardless of the OCR action.

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