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SALT LAKE CITY — A 14-year-old boy who says he was sexually assaulted by three football players from Gunnison Valley High School has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court.
The lawsuit alleges the South Sanpete School District, the district superintendent, the Gunnison Valley High principal and vice principal, and the school's athletic director have not done enough to stop ongoing abuse at the high school over the years, dismissing it as high school hazing and with a "boys being boys" attitude.
"They’ve created, or cultivated, a breeding ground for sexual predators in this school because they’ve allowed this behavior to be acceptable within this school,” said Misty Cox, the mother of Greg, the 14-year-old boy who was allegedly assaulted. The family declined to give Greg's last name and asked that it not be used.
If the administration at the school and district had properly addressed other alleged incidents over the years, the Sept. 17 assault would not have happened, Cox contends.
"Defendants … by their acts and omissions, created a hostile educational climate where student-on-student sexual assaults and harassment were consciously tolerated, which encouraged repeated sexual harassment," the lawsuit claims.
On Thursday, Greg, his mother and their attorney, Salt Lake civil rights attorney Robert Sykes, announced the filing of their federal lawsuit in a press conference.
"When you hold your son and he’s in tears because someone else has hurt him, that is why I am most upset,” Cox said in tears. "I am so upset because if someone else like the school would have done something, then my son wouldn’t have been assaulted. That is why I’m so upset.
"I want the school district to follow their own policies and to keep our children safe," she continued. "I’m more than upset, I’m mad."
Greg moved to Mayfield, Sanpete County, in July and began attending Gunnison Valley High as a freshman. He is a member of the junior varsity football team. On Sept. 17, before the start of football practice, two players tackled and pinned him to the ground while a third rubbed his genitals on the boy's face, the lawsuit states.
"Several students stood nearby laughing," according to the lawsuit. "Approximately 15 students witnessed this abuse."
Sykes said the assault would have lasted longer if another player, the quarterback for the varsity team, hadn't stepped in and pushed the other boys off Greg. Sykes praised the quarterback for stepping up and helping the freshman, while blasting the actions of the defendants.
"It was a constitutional violation of epic proportions … and it cries out for justice,” he said, adding that he believes some of the other alleged assaults against other students were worse.
That incident sparked a police investigation that resulted in detectives discovering several more alleged incidents of abuse involving many more students. A 16-year-old boy is accused of committing most of the incidents. Sykes described him as the "ring leader."
That 16-year-old, whom KSL has opted not to name at this time, was charged Sept. 28 in 6th District Juvenile Court with six counts of object rape, a first-degree felony, and five counts of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony. At the time, the boy was accused of assaulting nine or 10 other boys at the school.
The two other teens accused of holding down the victim, ages 14 and 15, were each charged with one count of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony.
As the investigation into the 16-year-old continued, police found "multiple victims in multiple locations" as far back as two years ago, according to prosecutors. Following news reports of the investigation, more students came forward claiming they were also victims. Deputy Sanpete County attorney Wesley Mangum said the number of victims as of Thursday was between 12 and 15.
Following the Sept. 17 incident, Greg's parents met with Kent Larsen, the district superintendent.
"Larsen characterized the incident as just 'boys being boys,' and football 'hazing' that 'went too far,'" according to the lawsuit, and "dismissed any referral of the incident as a sexual assault, and again mischaracterized it as 'just boys wrestling around, and they crossed the line.'"
Two of the players charged began calling the 14-year-old "snitch" in retaliation, according to the lawsuit. One player also told the boy, "I was charged with rape and got away with it, and charged with sexting and got away with it, and I'll get away with this too," the suit states.
The three players connected to the Sept. 17 incident were suspended from school for three days, according to the lawsuit, but were still allowed to participate in football practice.
"The attackers essentially were rewarded with three days off from school for sexually assaulting a student," the lawsuit claims.
Larsen said Thursday that neither he nor the district had seen the lawsuit and would reserve comment until they had time to read it.
Following news reports of the charges, Greg was subjected to "relentless harassment and accusations of racism. He has been continually harassed at the hands of his tormentors, he has been alienated from the football team," according to the lawsuit.
The family claims it has also been harassed and threatened by members of the small community and the 14-year-old is currently seeing therapists due to the trauma he has endured.
But Greg and his mother say they have also received support, particularly from parents whose children were also abused. Some parents decided it was easier to pull their child out of school and finish their education by completing packets at home, she said. She believes there are some victims who have yet to come forward because they are afraid of retaliation.
Because of that, she said she is willing to put her face "out there" and publicly address the allegations.
"I am that much more empowered to be that face," Cox said. "I can take the hits. You can stand behind me, I’ll be the strength for both of us. And I’m OK with that. I will be whatever strength we both need because I know it’s not just for my son. It’s for who knows how many other children need it, too. And for me, that’s my motivation to be in front of cameras, because there are so many victims that are afraid. And for me, I have been afraid and I’m not afraid any more.”
Greg said some of the other football players have started backing him since the allegations surfaced. He said while the JV football season is over, he will still go to varsity games to show support.
"I have bad days and I have good days, mostly good days. And the days that are bad, I think, ‘Why did this happen to me? The school district could have stopped this,'" he said.
Greg admits he considered transferring schools. But with the encouragement of his mother, said he knew he couldn't run away from his problems.
"I thought if I went to a different school, this could happen to more people,” he said. "It was hard because I knew I didn’t do anything wrong. They were in the wrong. And I know I didn’t do anything wrong. I said what needed to be said."
Sykes said the civil case won't affect the outcome of the criminal case, which was still ongoing Thursday. He said he also plans to ask for an injunction as part of their lawsuit, demanding that the school update and follow its policies on harassment and bullying.
"(Greg and his mother) don’t want another child to be bullied or assaulted down there," he said.