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A family suing over the alleged sexual assault of a student at Cleveland Middle School is seeking $5 million more, claiming in a new complaint a grade-level principal trivialized the allegation at an assembly, after which children played a game of tag in which they would shout "sexual harassment!" when they were touched by classmates.

According to the original lawsuit filed Dec. 11 filed by attorneys J. Taylor Thomas and Russell L. Leonard, the girl was repeatedly sexually assaulted while school officials looked the other way and her parents were only told days later by the Tennessee Department of Children's Services. The student's identity is being shielded during the proceedings. 

In the original suit, the plaintiffs claimed the assault "was done forcefully, with Jane Doe being shoved up against a locker, molested and brutalized, resulting in physical injuries from which Jane Doe had to recover more than a week after the assault. Her psychological injuries remain with her and shall remain for the foreseeable future."

The lawsuit sought $10 million. In an amended filing this month seeking $15 million, the plaintiff's family now says a seventh-grade principal held a Zoom assembly April 19 — with the alleged victim in attendance — on the subject of sexual assault and harassment.

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Read the lawsuit filed against Cleveland City Schools, officials

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According to the filing in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, the principal told students "even if you look the wrong way, you'd probably get sued" and "trivialized" such conduct as "bottom slaps" or "pats."

The district and its administrators, represented by Knoxville attorney Jonathan Taylor, have 21 days from the date of filing to answer the new allegations.

"We will continue to vigorously defend the allegations contained in the complaint," Taylor said. "All of my clients' denials and defenses will be set out in an answer to the second amended complaint that will be filed with the court in due course."

In court papers, the district has generally denied the allegations.

"These defendants deny having any knowledge that the physical nature of the alleged assault was more than a pat on the bottom," the district's response stated in March.

The amended complaint now names seventh-grade principal Michael Ingram as a defendant and describes the April 19 assembly. During the assembly, the seventh-grade principal said "sexual assault and harassment occurs when students 'horseplay,' explaining how 'kids [their] age are starting to notice things,'" the amended complaint alleges.

The seventh-grade principal "further trivialized sexual assault and harassment by referring to such conduct as merely 'bottom slaps' or 'pats,' a direct reference to the account of the assault of [the plaintiff] given by defendants," the amended complaint states.

After the assembly concluded, "the children then began to play a modified game of tag in which they would touch each other, then scream 'sexual harassment!'" the complaint alleges, without explaining how that took place after a Zoom assembly.

In the amended complaint, the plaintiffs increased the amount sought to $7.5 million in compensatory damages and $7.5 million in punitive damages.

"Defendants demonstrated intentional indifference to the care and well-being of this child," the complaint states.

The plaintiffs also seek unspecified damages for mental suffering and pain; payment of the costs of private education; attorneys' fees and punitive damages against the individual defendants. They also seek training, supervision, reporting requirements and other policies to better protect children.

Cleveland City Schools officials didn't immediately respond to questions about the principal's alleged comments to the students, whether such comments would be allowed under school policies and whether he is still employed at the school.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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