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Feds launch Title IX investigation into hazing allegations: Lawyer

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | June 14, 2023 12:00 AM

The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is investigating Kalispell Public Schools regarding Title IX complaints of two types of discrimination — sexual violence and retaliation.

School officials either declined to comment on the investigation or said they had no details about the complaints. But an attorney representing the families of students who reported hazing on the Glacier High School wrestling team in the 2021-22 academic year said the investigation stems from those allegations.

Michael Bliven of the Bliven Law Firm told the Inter Lake that the complaints arose from the allegations of sexual assault among members of the wrestling team on buses and hotels during the 2021-22 school year, as well as subsequent incidents of retaliation into 2023. Bliven represents two students, one a victim and the other a witness, and their parents.

“Yes, the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Division is investigating the assaults in the Glacier Wrestling Program and the district's handling of the matters and failure to take meaningful corrective action,” Bliven wrote in a June 6 email.

Federal officials launched the investigations on April 11. Bliven described the Office for Civil Rights’ review as “very important.”

“[Kalispell School] District 5 has refused to respond to us or take any meaningful action regarding these matters and students engaged in the conduct,” he wrote.

Superintendent Micah Hill, who is departing Kalispell Public Schools for the top job at Missoula County Public Schools at the end of the month, declined to comment on the investigation. The attorney representing the district, Elizabeth Kaleva of Kaleva Law Office, said administrators are cooperating with investigators.

She said the school district received a letter notifying them of the investigation but not the contents of the complaint.

“It’s very, very early in the process,” Kaleva said.

A PERSON may submit a Title IX complaint to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights when they believe an issue hasn’t been resolved through an institution's grievance procedure.

Following the revelation of the allegations, district officials launched an internal investigation, Hill said in January.

“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,” he said in a statement at the time.

Subsequent disciplinary hearings held by the Board of Trustees resulted in three student suspensions from extracurricular activities. Students were given the opportunity to be eligible to resume extracurriculars upon completion of programming at the Center for Restorative Youth Justice in Kalispell.

According to Kaleva, the school district conducted a second Title IX investigation, which has since concluded.

The Kalispell Police Department launched a separate criminal investigation into the allegations, later turning it over to the Billings Police Department where the alleged incidents occurred. Officials there said the investigation is finished and a report was presented to the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office.

If the Office of Civil Rights determines Kalispell Public Schools failed to comply with civil rights laws it will attempt to negotiate a “voluntary resolution agreement.” An agreement outlines remedial actions an institution will undertake to address identified areas of noncompliance that are then monitored by the office. Federal funding is on the line if an institution fails to comply with Title IX.

Opening an investigation does not imply a determination has been made on the merits of the complaint, according to the Office for Civil Rights. During the investigation, the Office for Civil Rights acts as a “neutral fact-finder,” to collect evidence and resolve complaints.

The Office for Civil Rights enforces federal anti-discrimination laws in schools, colleges and other institutions, like libraries, that receive federal funding. Title IX is a federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities. This includes sexual harassment and sexual violence, which the agency considers a form of sexual harassment.

This is not the first time Glacier High School administrators, including Activities Director Mark Dennehy, have dealt with hazing and sexual assault allegations. In 2011-12, a highly publicized incident on a freshman football bus resulted in multiple suspensions with several of the students facing assault charges in Flathead Youth Court.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.