PALMER — Attention turned this week from a Wasilla elementary teacher accused of sexually abusing multiple children over more than a decade to his employer: the Mat-Su school district.
Lukis Nighswonger, 36, was fired from his job at Iditarod Elementary School after his arrest in September on felony charges he sexually abused several students in his class and a teenage friend of the family at school. A grand jury indictment handed down in Palmer Superior Court earlier this month brought the number of Nighswonger’s victims to eight and charges against him to 19.
Three families on Tuesday filed two civil lawsuits in Anchorage Superior Court blaming the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District for dismissing reports of potential abuse.
The district is legally responsible for Nighswonger because it provided him access to hundreds of children over the years and failed to take action on several reports of Nighswonger molesting his students, attorneys for the families say. District officials also failed to train and supervise other employees on their legal duty to report abuse.
One civil lawsuit filed against the district charges that an Iditarod administrator several years ago dismissed sexual abuse concerns from the mother of a fourth-grader in Nighswonger’s classroom.
The lawsuit claims an unnamed child — an 8-year-old in 2015-16 — told his mother Nighswonger was touching his legs and making him “feel weird." The boy was in the teacher’s class and also on basketball and track teams Nighswonger coached.
Upon hearing of the mother’s concerns, an administrator at Iditarod denied her request to move the boy out of Nighswonger’s class and told her the boy’s report “had no basis in fact,” according to the complaint filed on behalf of the boy.
Instead, the administrator vouched for the teacher as someone who wouldn’t pose a risk to children even as Nighswonger was putting his hands down the boy’s pants to touch him sexually, the lawsuit claims. The administrator didn’t report the mother’s concerns and it’s not known if Nighswonger was questioned about it.
The other civil suit filed Tuesday involves a female student in Nighswonger’s third-grade class in 2009 and fourth-grade class in 2010, and a male student in his class in 2014, according to that complaint, filed separately. Nighswonger continued to have contact with both after they left his class and “repeatedly molested” both, the complaint says.
The criminal case filed in Palmer Superior Court against Nighswonger accuses him of touching children’s genitals through their clothes, sticking his hands down their pants to touch them sexually, or stroking children on their legs toward their genitals. Alaska State Troopers said that after his arrest, he told investigators he was a pedophile was had been attracted to children for as long as he could remember.
The case stunned the community at Iditarod, where Nighswonger was a beloved teacher known as “Mr. Nigh” who’d taught there since 2005 and received a BP Teacher of Excellence award in 2015, the same year several young victims say he abused them.
Several victims complained about his conduct for years before his arrest. The dates of the alleged abuse span 16 years, dating back to 2002.
The child at the center of one civil suit, now 12, is also one of the eight victims involved in the criminal case, according to Myron Angstman, one of two attorneys representing the boy’s parents. The other attorneys involved are Kramer and Associates and Greg Parvin.
The child’s parents are suing the school district on his behalf. A spokeswoman said the district had no immediate comment Tuesday afternoon.
The boy’s mother initially asked another teacher at Iditarod for advice, the complaint says. That teacher was “dismissive, telling (the mother) there was no way Nighswonger would behave inappropriately towards children, including her son, (her) concerns were unfounded, and the teacher vouched for Nighswonger as a popular and much-loved teacher."
The teacher discouraged the boy’s mother from doing anything about his report, didn’t disclose a teacher’s mandatory duty to report suspected child abuse to the state or procedures to investigate reports of harm at any level concerning a teacher and student, the lawsuit claims. Instead, the teacher acted as a “gatekeeper” to protect Nighswonger based on his reputation rather than responding to the child’s complaint.
The teacher did not report the mother’s concerns to the principal, the school district, the school board, law enforcement or the state, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also references signs posted for children at school: “Children Are ... BELIEVABLE, trust them” and “Children Are ... VULNERABLE, protect them.”
The teacher and the administrator are not named.
The boy’s mother said after the teacher discouraged her, her son continued to describe Nighswonger as “weird” and acted out, the complaint states. She noticed he got very upset if he couldn’t find his belt before school and only seemed comfortable going to school “if his pants were secured by a belt around his waist.”
That’s when she went to meet with the administrator.
State law imposes a mandatory duty on the school district to train teachers and administrative staff “on the recognition and reporting of child abuse and neglect,” the lawsuit states. Under mandatory reporting statutes, teachers and staff who have “reasonable cause to suspect” a child has suffered harm from child abuse or neglect are required to immediately report that harm to the state Department of Health and Social Services.
The lack of an immediate report to state authorities failed to “safeguard a vulnerable child” but also shielded Nighswonger from investigation and enabled him to further distress the boy, as well as provide the opportunity for continued abuse of him and potentially other elementary school children, the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuits seek damages to be determined by a jury, plus interest, cost and attorneys’ fees.
Nighswonger, who remains jailed on $1 million bail, has entered not guilty pleas to the criminal charges against him in Palmer. His trial is scheduled for April.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the name of a law firm. It is Kramer and Associates, not Association.