Attorneys for two former students are suing the Elko County School District, alleging the district knew about a teacher’s sexual abuse of minors and could have acted to protect them, including one who later killed himself.
The lawsuit, which also names the principal of the Wells Combined School at the time, claims that the district was aware of the unlawful sexual relations that teacher Tennille Whitaker had with students, but ignored and concealed the problem.
Whitaker, who was an elementary teacher at the K-12 school, was sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison last year on four counts of sexual conduct between a school employee and a pupil.
The federal complaint, filed in Elko County District Court by one former student and the administrator of the estate for the deceased former student, states that Whitaker harassed and molested two high school boys who were assigned to her room as teacher’s aides in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school year.
She provided one student with “alcohol in exchange for sexual gratification,” the lawsuit states. When the other student refused to consent to Whitaker’s harassment, she would “get angry, kick him out of her classroom and threaten to mark him absent.”
Shortly after graduation in August 2018, one of the students killed himself because of his “resultant depression, humiliation and embarrassment,” the lawsuit states.
The complaint claims there were multiple instances before the suicide in which the district knew of Whitaker’s behavior and could have done something to protect students. The district was notified in October 2016 that the Elko County sheriff was investigating Whitaker.
In 2017, a custodian walked in on Whitaker and a minor in the classroom with the lights off and the door locked, the complaint states. That same year, another teacher reported to the principal that she had a photograph taken from the Snapchat phone application that showed Whitaker was having sexual relations with a minor student, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also claims that the district’s policy on sexual harassment of students violates state law because it requires employees to report sexual harassment to a building administrator or counselor rather than the required child welfare or law enforcement agency.
The policy also instructed employees only to report a problem if they had “good cause” to believe a student was being harassed and required the validity of such complaints to be determined within the district — thereby “excluding law enforcement or any child protective agency,” according to the lawsuit.
In a statement, Superintendent Todd Pehrson said the district cannot comment on any litigation.
“We follow our policies and procedures,” he said in an email. “The safety of our students is our number one concern at all times.”