Roncalli High School, Archdiocese of Indianapolis sued by family of former student with Down syndrome over claims of abuse, harassment by football players

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INDIANAPOLIS — The family of a former student at Roncalli High School has filed a civil lawsuit against the school and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in response to what they say is a failure to address alleged bullying and harassment directed at the student while he served as the football team’s equipment manager.

The suit was filed on Tuesday by the guardians of an 18-year-old male with Down syndrome. It claims the boy, referred to as “John Doe” within the suit, was subjected to bullying, harassment, discrimination, abuse and hazing during the 2019-20 school year at the Catholic high school.

During that time, the student acted as a manager for the football team. The suit states “several varsity football team players leveraged their positions of power and exploited JOHN DOE’s disability-related vulnerabilities to discriminate, bully, harass, abuse, and haze him.”

History of bullying

The alleged abuse includes an incident in September of 2019 in which a varsity football player recorded John Doe urinating in the bathroom of the Roncalli football locker room and posted it on social media.

After the boy’s mother told Roncalli’s dean of students about the incident, the lawsuit says the dean, Tim Crissman, met with the student who took the video on his smartphone. Together, they deleted the video off the student’s phone. The student received one afterschool detention and was allowed to participate in football games, practices and events.

When John Doe’s mother asked Dean Crissman about the school’s response, he “admitted he was
required to watch the video and he failed to do that.” Upon investigating further, he told John Doe’s mother at least two other students saw the video. Those students were not prohibited from participating in any football-related activities.

The suit says that in retaliation for telling his mother about the urination video, the boy was then forced to perform a sexual act in the locker room.

The boy’s mother says she learned about the incident when she got an anonymous letter from a parent of a football player. It said John Doe had been coerced into licking the nipple of another football player while other people in the locker room laughed. In the letter, it alleged the bullying player was the coach’s son.

According to the lawsuit, the events were recorded on a cell phone and then deleted. The parent who wrote the letter also said he or she reported the incident to the school.

In turn, John Doe’s mother filed a report with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department after court documents say the school failed to do so. There was also no report filed by Roncalli to the Department of Child Services, according to the lawsuit.

Roncalli investigation

A little more than a week after the incident, court documents reveal Dean Crissman and Roncalli officials did an internal investigation and found the incident in the locker room “did not occur.”

In an interview with CBS4 in November of 2019, the boy’s mother said she hired a lawyer and sent Roncalli a letter, stating the family would accept $150,000 to keep the situation confidential. The school didn’t agree.

“My child is forever changed because of what they did to him,” John Doe’s mother told us at the time. 

John Doe’s mother said as the school investigated, officials interviewed her son (who was 15 years old at the time) without a parent or guardian present. In court documents, the mother said “no protections or accommodations were implemented to ensure JOHN DOE’s safety, dignity, or personal autonomy” throughout the investigation.

The lawsuit says the ongoing bullying, harassment and abuse became so severe that John Doe’s mother pulled him from Roncalli and its “hostile and unsafe environment.”

From co-guardians of John Doe v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc. and Roncalli High School, Inc.:

The bullying, harassment, hazing, discrimination, and abuse were more than isolated and sporadic incidents; they were serious, ongoing, and continuous and had the systemic effect of depriving JOHN DOE to educational programs and activities.

According to the suit, in failing to protect John Doe, Roncalli failed to follow its policies of its “STARS-Special Education Services Program” for students with an intellectual or learning disability. As part of the stated policies, it said “any report or suspicion of child abuse and/or neglect will be reported to the appropriate
authorities for their investigation.”

Legal claims

The suit also says by Roncalli failing to provide John Doe an education in an environment free from discrimination, they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The latter guarantees “JOHN DOE the right to participate, along with nondisabled students, in academic, non-academic, and extracurricular activities and services to the maximum extent appropriate to meet his needs.”

The plaintiffs also stated Roncalli’s actions were a Title IX violation because John Doe “was sexually assaulted
and the recipient of unwelcome conduct so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denied him equal access to the Defendants’ educational program and football program.”

According to court documents, Roncalli demonstrated negligence and “deliberate indifference” when it failed to investigate the harassment and abuse and give appropriate discipline to the students involved, as well as help get rid of the evidence.

John Doe has since suffered significant physical, emotional, and psychological injuries, according to the suit.

The plaintiffs are asking for compensatory damages “including but not limited to reasonable mental and physical health care expenses past present and future, mental anguish suffered past present and future, various out of pocket expenses related to curing the acts.”

We have reached out to Roncalli High School and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis for a response.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis released the following statement:

We were made aware of an incident that occurred between students in September 2019 as was extensively reported by the media in late 2019. Roncalli High School staff learned of the alleged incident and reported it to the Department of Child Protective Services.  Roncalli and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis fully cooperated with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department during its investigation. No criminal charges were filed in the matter.

In February 2020, the archdiocese received a letter from the plaintiff’s new lawyer advising the archdiocese that the plaintiff had secured new counsel.  Until today’s filing the archdiocese never received any communication from counsel for the plaintiff.

The safety and well-being of every student is of utmost importance to us. Roncalli High School offers an exceptional educational and faith formation experience in a safe, secure environment. The school’s special education program has served hundreds of students with disabilities in an exemplary manner.

We continue to pray for all involved in this situation.

The entire suit is available below.

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