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Cleveland City Schools and other defendants named in a $10 million federal lawsuit filed in December 2020 have filed a formal answer denying that a middle school student was repeatedly sexually assaulted while officials did nothing and instead saying she was patted on the bottom one time.

"My clients deny any and all liability in this matter, and they intend to vigorously defend themselves in the lawsuit," the defendants' attorney, Jonathan Taylor, said Tuesday by email. "My clients have asserted a number of affirmative defenses and asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit in its entirety and award them their attorney's fees and costs in the defense of this matter."

The suit seeks $5 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. It calls the school system's actions in the incidents "deliberate indifference to extreme student-on-student sexual harassment, sexual assault and bullying," according to the lawsuit filed by Monteagle, Tennessee, attorney Russell L. Leonard on Dec. 11, 2020, in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.

The plaintiffs in the suit are dubbed anonymously as Jane Doe and her parents Janet Doe and John Doe. The suit names as defendants the Cleveland City Schools Board of Education; Cleveland Middle School; Principal Leneda Laing; Vice Principal Stephanie Pirkle; school resource officer Raul Cruz; sixth-grade counselor Lauren Latoria and the student's homeroom teacher, Terry Esquiance, and math teacher, Ashley Keith.

The defendants' answer was filed March 15.

"It is admitted that Plaintiffs allege multiple claims against these defendants, including deliberate indifference to student-on-student sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual battery, bullying, failing to take appropriative preventive measures, failure to adequately respond, failure to adequately investigate, failure to observe Title IX requirements, failure to offer appropriate assistance, civil rights violations, and the denial of educational opportunities," the response says. "These defendants deny each of these allegations and strict proof thereof is demanded."

The 21-page response contains similar language denying most claims from the lawsuit, but in several cases says "these defendants do not have sufficient knowledge or information to admit or deny the allegations."

For the most part, the denials are general and offer no specifics about the officials' version of events, but in one instance the response states, "These defendants deny having any knowledge that the physical nature of the alleged assault was more than a pat on the bottom."

In another response, the officials said, "The only alleged assault" related to the student was "being patted on the bottom at school by another student. These defendants deny that the student involved in this alleged assault repeatedly sexually assaulted" the student.

The response says, "It is admitted that these defendants had knowledge of one alleged assault" against the student "allegedly being patted on the bottom by another student at school."

Individuals named in the suit "are entitled to qualified immunity under state and federal law," according to the answer.

In the lawsuit, 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," the suit states. "Her psychological injuries remain with her and shall remain for the foreseeable future."

Defendants in the lawsuit contend punitive damages are not recoverable from governmental entities or their employees or representatives under Tennessee's Governmental Tort Liability Act, according to the answer document, and defendants point to case law which establishes that "local school districts are not insurers of the safety of students while they are at school."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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