A former Cheyenne student is alleging the school district there didn’t do enough to prevent her middle school teacher from sexually abusing her over a period of three years, according to a lawsuit filed by the victim in March in federal court.
The suit alleges that Laramie County School District No. 1 officials, including administrators at Johnson Junior High, were aware that teacher Joseph Meza’s relationship with the victim was inappropriate and that it violated district and professional standards. It alleges that administrators spoke with Meza repeatedly but never investigated or disciplined him for his personal relationship with the victim, which manifested in close contact at the school and drew the attention of staff and students.
“As a result of Meza’s actions and LCSD #1’s actions, inactions and negligence,” the lawsuit alleges, “the inappropriate, abusive and illegal relationship with (the victim) resulted in significant injury to (the victim) in the form of repeated assault and battery, severe and significant emotional and psychological injury, impaired access to education, and monetary damages including but not limited to medical bills for physical injuries and ongoing counseling and other psychological assessments.”
Emails seeking comment from district officials and the district’s private attorneys were not returned Tuesday. An email sent to John Lyttle, who was the superintendent during the incident, was also not returned. An email seeking comment from the two attorneys who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the victim was not returned. The district has not formally responded to the lawsuit, according to court records.
In 2017, Meza was charged with eight counts of first-degree sexual abuse. He was accused of sexually abusing the victim, who was 14 when the abuse started, for three years, during which time he adopted her. The case initially went to trial in late summer 2018, but Meza pleaded guilty to one of the counts midway through the proceedings. He was later sentenced to serve between 20 and 40 years in prison.
According to police documents attached to Meza’s criminal case, the victim told Cheyenne police in May 2017 that Meza had sexually abused her while she was a student at Johnson Junior High, where Meza was the victim’s math teacher and track coach. According to police and the victim’s lawsuit, the two began texting, swapping messages that became increasingly flirtatious. Eventually, in May 2014, the relationship turned sexual. Meza was 31. The victim was 14, meaning she could not legally consent to any sexual interactions with Meza.
The suit alleges that district officials were aware of Meza’s tendency to have “too close relationships” with female students. It cites a a fall 2013 incident, in which Meza was seen with his arm around a seventh-grade girl. John Cunningham, the middle school’s principal, “counseled Meza that such conduct was inappropriate and (about) the need for boundaries and personal space with these students,” according to the lawsuit. A letter about the incident was placed in Meza’s personnel file.
The suit also alleges that when the district hired Mesa and spoke with his employment references, one person said that Meza “tended to be ‘too close to students.’”
In fall 2013, the victim — who the Star-Tribune will not name because she is the victim of sexual abuse — enrolled in Meza’s math class. The lawsuit alleges that Meza began talking to the student outside of school hours, and the two began to text constantly. The victim began spending time in Meza’s classroom before school; she ate lunch with him, skipped class to see him and was driven home by him. Meza “frequently closed the door (to his classroom) so that they would have additional ‘privacy,’” the lawsuit says.
Much of those activities are prohibited by the Professional Teaching Standards Board, according to guidance from the organization that’s attached to the lawsuit.
As the sexual abuse began in spring 2014 and continued, the victim continued to spend “excessive amounts of time” with Meza during school hours, according to the suit. When the victim moved to high school, the two continued to see each other at the middle school before, during and after hours.
During the course of the abuse, the victim “engaged in numerous acts of self-harm, including cutting herself and attempting to commit suicide.” Meza allegedly threatened to kill himself if the victim “ended their relationship,” according to the suit.
The lawsuit alleges that school administrators were aware that the victim was in Meza’s classroom, even after she had graduated, and that employees at the school “commented on the extraordinary amount of time (the victim) was spending with Meza before, during and after school.” At one point, an administrator entered Meza’s room as he was teaching, saw the victim and instructed her to return to her own class, the suit alleges.
In April 2015, two middle school administrators met with Meza. They wanted to “address concerns they had regarding students who were not enrolled in his class being present in his classroom,” according to the suit. “At the meeting, they explained ‘concerns and perceptions’ that could develop amongst students and staff about the students frequently visiting the classrooms.”
The suit says that the two administrators spoke with Meza “once per month regarding these issues.” But no investigation was conducted, Meza was not disciplined, and the incidents were not documented, the suit alleges. The victim accused the district of having inadequate training and policies for addressing both sexual harassment and “other offensive and unconstitutional acts.”
Rumors began circulating around the middle school about a sexual relationship between Meza and the victim, the suit alleges, and “at least one employee at Johnson Junior High repeatedly notified and reported concerns about Meza’s inappropriate relationship with (the victim) to” school administrators.
In 2015, according to police documents, the victim’s mother approached Meza about adopting the victim. The process began in fall 2015, when the victim moved into Meza’s home. The sexual relationship continued, unbeknownst to Meza’s wife. She filed for divorce after he was arrested.
The victim went to police after she told Meza she wanted to stop having sex with him, according to police documents.
Meza will be in prison until at least 2038. He agreed to a sentence of at least 20 years when he pleaded guilty to first-degree sexual abuse of a minor. Earlier this year, he asked a Laramie County judge to reduce his sentence. That request was rejected.
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