High school leaders, district settle lawsuit alleging they mishandled bullying after rape allegation

By ETHAN WEINSTEIN

VtDigger

Published: 02-05-2024 4:30 PM

A lawsuit alleging Green Mountain Union School District and some of its administrators failed to protect five sisters from harassment after one of them was raped has been settled for $300,000, according to the sisters’ lawyer.

In 2017, Skylar White, a senior at the time, reported that a fellow student, Ryan Stocker, had raped her at a party. Stocker was charged with sexual assault, and last year pled guilty in the criminal case.

“With a situation as traumatic as this, you don’t ever really get closure,” White said in an interview Wednesday. She called the money “helpful,” but added that “there’s not really any amount of money that could take away what happened to us, that could take away a complete loss of community, the immense sense of just institutional betrayal.”

“I was told if something bad happens to you go to an adult that you trust,” White said. “So I went to adults that I’ve known for years, administrators that I’d had very personal and close relationships with, and I told them. And they absolutely refused to protect me.”

In 2019, White and her family, including four of her sisters, filed an almost 70-page civil complaint in federal court, detailing a series of events that allegedly took place at the school in Chester.

VTDigger does not normally name survivors of sexual assault, but in this instance, White has spoken publicly about her experience with the media.

The suit alleges that Green Mountain school officials reported the incident to law enforcement, but failed to adequately investigate it themselves. Meanwhile, the sisters said they experienced continued harassment from fellow students, including a petition advocating for their expulsion and being called slurs. Students also repeatedly confronted White to discuss the assault charge, the suit alleged. 

The agreement, reached in January, is not “an admission of liability or wrongdoing,” according to the settlement language.

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“I represented (a family of) amazing women,” Karen Hewes, the Whites’ lawyer, said in an interview. “The reality is (sexual assault) is so underreported. And the reason it’s underreported is because of what Skylar went through.”

Hewes also pointed to a federal legal landscape increasingly stacked against women and historically marginalized groups. In particular, she highlighted the end of Roe v. Wade and the erosion of some Title IX protections during the Trump administration. 

Not long after the 2017 incident, White went public with her experience, telling Vermont Public that she wanted other people who had been raped to feel comfortable sharing their stories. 

On Wednesday, White said that after speaking publicly, she received a flood of messages from fellow survivors of sexual violence. 

“I probably received over 100 messages from complete strangers saying this exact thing happened to me,” she told VTDigger. “It’s incredibly heartbreaking I think, because you see it everywhere, but it made me feel less alone.”

The lawsuit named as defendants Green Mountain Unified School District and its board, Two Rivers Supervisory Union and its board, then-Superintendent Meg Powden, former Principal Thomas Ferenc, then-Associate Principal Michael Ripley, and Director of Guidance Pamela O’Neil. 

An independent investigation by Ruth Durkee, an attorney, found that Green Mountain Union leaders should have reported “some incidents” to police, should have separated the White sisters from “the accused students,” and failed to “create a safe environment for the girls,” according to the court complaint. 

Two River Supervisory Union’s superintendent, Lauren Fierman, did not reply to requests for comment on Wednesday. 

Ultimately, White said she and her family hoped that the lawsuit could bring “institutional change.” With that in mind, she advocated for Green Mountain Union to agree to increasing educational training around sexual violence and consent for both students and staff. 

But the suit’s settlement does not include new education requirements. White made clear that she considers her story anything but a “triumph.” Her family left Vermont as a result of the treatment they experienced from the Green Mountain Union community, she said.