Wrestling program in Kalispell School District subject of new complaint

Parent alleges district officials failed to protect son from sex assault, hazing

By: - November 3, 2023 5:39 pm

A new lawsuit against Kalispell Public Schools and Glacier High School officials alleges a sexual assault on a bus ride. (Photo by Rion Sanders for the Daily Montanan)

The parent of a high school wrestler is alleging the Kalispell School District and officials with a standout wrestling program failed to protect her son from a sexual assault and permitted a culture and “tradition” of hazing in a lawsuit filed last week following three related federal complaints.

In the lawsuit filed last Monday in U.S. District Court in Missoula, the parent is asking for $650,000 and a jury trial.

The lawsuit is one of a series of pending complaints related to the Glacier High School wrestling program, said lawyer Michael Bliven, who represents clients who filed separate allegations with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Bliven said Friday he knows of at least three complaints pending with the Office for Civil Rights and a related investigation underway that’s linked to the wrestling program and district.

He said adults with the district and high school have given offenders a pass and failed to protect victims or take them seriously. For example, he said administrators have failed to ask for input from victims, although they have heard from offenders.

“The victims have been treated like mushrooms, kept in the dark and had manure thrown on them,” said Bliven, of Bliven Law in Kalispell.

In the most recent complaint, filed by Helena lawyer John Doubek of Doubek, Pyfer & Storrar, the parent alleges district and high school employees were negligent in training staff and supervising team travel.

The Daily Montanan is not releasing the name of the parent in order to protect the identity of the student, an alleged victim in the case.

Earlier this year, multiple news outlets reported a culture and tradition of hazing at Glacier High School, including by sexual assault, in the wrestling program.

In February 2023, the Flathead Beacon reported three Glacier High School students were disciplined as part of an investigation into hazing reported one month earlier.

The story said two of those students were suspended from the wrestling team pending completion of a Center for Restorative Youth Justice program, which works to divert teenagers from the criminal justice system.

Sexual assault alleged on wrestling trip

The recent complaint alleges a sexual assault against the plaintiff’s minor son in February 2022, and negligence by school and district officials.

At the time, the son was a student at Glacier High School, and on an overnight state wrestling trip to Billings, he witnessed upper class wrestlers sexually assault a teammate who was sharing his motel room, the lawsuit said.

“(The son) was fearful he would be the next person to be assaulted, so for his own protection, he used his cell phone and recorded a part of the assault,” the complaint said.

The upper class wrestlers left the room that night, but on the bus ride back to Kalispell, the plaintiff’s son walked to the back of the bus to use the restroom, and on his way back, the upper class wrestlers assaulted him, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said defendant Joshua Melton used a pillow and tackled him and told him to “be quiet,” and defendant Teegan Vasquez put an attachment on a massage gun and “‘shoved it up (the victim’s) butt for a couple minutes’” with his pants on.

“After a few minutes, Vasquez and Melton stopped and allowed (the victim) to get up from the bus floor and return to his seat,” the lawsuit said. “The sexual assault ordeal was physically and emotionally painful, shocking and embarrassing.”

Neither the defendants provided comment to the Daily Montanan.

A lawyer for the school district said both are 18 now, although she did not believe they are still in the Kalispell area.

A Montana Sports story from April notes Vasquez is a four-time state champion wrestler and earned a national title. A story in the Flathead Beacon indicates he was a star wrestler and a high school senior in February 2023.

His father, Rich Vazquez, a former wrestling coach and volunteer assistant wrestling coach, according to the complaint, is also a named defendant.

Rich Vasquez could not be reached for comment through a social media message or the school district.

No criminal charges in Flathead, Lake district courts

Neither Vasquez nor Melton were criminally charged in Flathead or Lake counties in connection with the alleged assault, according to respective county attorneys.

In a phone call this week, Flathead County Attorney Travis Ahner said his office had a conflict of interest and screened itself from the criminal investigation by law enforcement.

Once law enforcement determined the investigation would advance, Ahner said Flathead County requested support given its conflict, and the Lake County Attorney’s Office stepped in to take the case.

In an email, Lake County Attorney James Lapotka said neither Vasquez nor Melton was charged in his district. Lapotka said his office referred the case to youth court.

Thursday, a youth court official said proceedings are confidential, and he could not confirm whether it had dealt with either of the alleged offenders.

This week, interim Superintendent of Kalispell Public Schools Randy Cline declined to comment on the most recent complaint. Cline said the district’s lawyer said the lawsuit had not yet been served.

“So we cannot comment at this time,” Cline said in an email.

Former Superintendent Micah Hill is a named defendant in the lawsuit and had addressed earlier allegations in a January 2023 story from KPAX. Then-Superintendent Hill said the district immediately launched an internal investigation once it became aware of sexual assault allegations.

“The high school, with the support of its Board and the district, have taken – and will continue to take – disciplinary action in line with our policies and Montana law,” said Hill in a January statement; Hill is now superintendent in Missoula.

“Because of privacy concerns and the ongoing investigation, we are unable to share additional details. We continue to cooperate fully with law enforcement and connect with our students to ensure they have the support they need. We remain committed to providing a respectful, safe and supportive learning environment for our students.”

A ‘whitewash’ by the district alleged

However, Bliven, lawyer for the alleged victims, told MTN News his clients believed “reporting is being suppressed” and the district had acted “with deliberate indifference.”

Bliven said Friday victims continue to suffer while education officials “whitewash” the assaults and withhold information from the public.

“What the victims want is they want to be able to go to school and compete in a safe environment and not be put at risk,” Bliven said.

Most recently, his firm represents a student wrestler who is asking to transfer from Glacier High School to Flathead High School because he wants to compete in an environment free of abuse.

Bliven said the student and parent have requested a hearing with the Montana High School Association in that case, but they are still waiting on it.

“There are ongoing problems and issues related to this place,” Bliven said of Glacier High School and its wrestling program. “And the damages to students involved hasn’t ended.”

Title IX coordinator named in lawsuit

The recent complaint said the plaintiff’s son was 15 years old when he was assaulted: “At all times, he had a federal and state right, statutory and constitutional, to a quality education and to participate in all school related activities such as wrestling and be free from terrible actions by teammates.”

The lawsuit also names as defendants Glacier High School, wrestling coach Ross Dankers, and high school athletic director Mark Dennehy. They did not respond to voicemails for comment Thursday.

“They were negligent in providing adequate training to their staff members and supervising motel stays, long and late night bus travel, helping students to understand the need to report bullying, coercion, harassment, hazing, intimidations, assaults of any kind and that such actions were wrong, if not criminal,” the lawsuit said.

“They failed to provide any supportive measures to (the son).”

The complaint also names school district Title IX coordinator Sara Cole as a defendant. The lawsuit said adults violated the plaintiff’s son’s Title IX rights; Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972 protects people in education programs from discrimination based on sex.

The lawsuit alleges the plaintiff made it clear she wanted to be present if Cole intended to talk with her son about the incident, and Cole agreed. However, the lawsuit said Cole pulled the son out of class and directed him to send her the video he had taken, which led to the son being accused of improperly sharing it.

“As a consequence, (the son) was advised by law enforcement that he was being referred to law enforcement for potential criminal violations,” the lawsuit said. “(The plaintiff and son) were compelled to retain counsel to defend against any potential charges, all of which were dismissed.”

The complaint said Cole’s actions “were aimed at minimizing what had happened” and silencing him. Cole did not respond to a message left with the district for comment.

“These defendants permitted a culture and ‘traditions’ of hazing and assault,” the lawsuit said. “They knew or should have known that one of their assistant coaches had acquiesced in such conduct previously.

“They knew about the ‘tradition’ of the upper class wrestlers hazing and sexually assaulting the younger wrestlers. They did nothing to specifically address this ‘tradition.’

“And when the assault of (the plaintiff’s son) surfaced, they showed him no empathy and treated him as a lying criminal. They repeatedly looked the other way when the facts and videos verified the sexual assault.”

The lawsuit said the defendants are responsible for causing the son physical and emotional harm, damaging his way of life, and causing him to need medical care.

Doubek did not respond to messages this week from the Daily Montanan.

However, Bliven, representing other clients, said district officials have not only turned a blind eye to the abuse, they allow retaliation against whistleblowers. He pointed to the parent whose child he alleges is being blocked from a transfer out of Glacier High School as an example.

“Unfortunately, we know these incidents go back several years as part of a pattern, as part of a culture,” Bliven said. “And that is a major concern.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.