Lawsuit accuses Anchorage School District of mishandling aide investigation

The parents of a special-needs student have filed suit against the Anchorage School District, accusing it of waiting weeks to act on a report that a teacher's aide was mistreating their child.

The lawsuit accuses the district of waiting about a month after receiving the first report to investigate a Begich Middle School teacher's aide, Julianti Clarke. During those weeks, the district did not alert the police or forbid contact between Clarke and the student, says the civil complaint filed Wednesday in Anchorage Superior Court.

Once the district investigated, Clarke was fired, the complaint says. However, it says that between August and October 2014, Clarke sexually, physically and emotionally abused the student.

In a statement Friday, the Anchorage School District said it "strongly denied" the lawsuit's allegations. The district said school administrators took "immediate action to report the suspicion of improper sexual contact by the teacher assistant." It said the teacher assistant was "promptly placed on leave" and fired as soon as the district reviewed videos.

Heidi Embley, school district spokeswoman, said in an email that a school district employee first notified a school administrator in September 2014 that Clarke refused to open a bag of chips for a student. In a review, the administrator found no inappropriate conduct. About two weeks later, a school administrator received an "unrelated complaint of similar behavior" and investigated further, discovering "inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature," she said.

"The day of that finding, Ms. Clarke was immediately placed on leave and school administrators notified APD and OCS," Embley said, referring to the police department and the Office of Children's Services.

In 2015, Clarke was charged with two counts of harassing the student in a criminal case. According to the charges, surveillance video showed Clarke and the student sitting at a table in the school's lunchroom. The charges said Clarke stroked the student's genitals over his clothes, stuck items from the table down his shirt and used his hand to wipe the table. The charges said the student "communicates through a menu-driven electronic device and responds verbally only rarely."

Clarke agreed to plead guilty to second-degree harassment, and the first-degree charge was dismissed. She then completed 48 hours of community service, and prosecutors dismissed the entire case, according to court documents.

A woman who answered the phone at a number listed for Clarke said that she did not want to talk to anyone about the case. "I tried to put everything behind me," she said.

Embley said Clarke was hired in 2001 and her last day with the district was Oct. 28, 2014.

Wednesday's lawsuit says the district breached its duty to protect the student and "negligently failed" to supervise employees. As a result of the abuse and negligence, the child and his parents experienced "foreseeable severe emotional distress" and should each be paid damages in excess of $500,000.

Correction: The headline in an earlier version of this story said the lawsuit was over the investigation of a teacher, though the text of the story correctly said the investigation was of a teacher's aide.