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Whitaker receives prison time

Tennille Whitaker speaks at her sentencing hearing Oct. 4, 2018, in Elko District Court where she was sentenced to a maximum of 20 years in prison. 

ELKO – A lawsuit has been filed in federal district court by the estate of a former student against the Elko County School District and former Wells principal, citing failure to remove a teacher who was later convicted of sexual contact with four high school students.

Corbin Madison and Brennen Hooper were named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging the Elko County School District and Chris McAnany, former principal of Wells Combined Schools, “suppressed, concealed or failed to disclose” information about Tennille Whitaker’s conduct among male high school students.

Madison, who moved to Reno shortly after graduation, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound five days after Reno police sought the public’s help in locating him.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Reno on March 10 on behalf of Hooper, and Corbin Madison’s father, Terry, who is named as the special administrator for his son’s estate. Hooper and Corbin Madison each served as student aides in Whitaker’s classroom on two separate occasions and were part of an investigation that led to the arrest and felony conviction of Whitaker.

The suit asks for a jury to find the district guilty of failing to “address, prevent and/or remove known sexual predators from its ranks,” and award Hooper and Madison’s estate up to $45,000 and possibly more in funeral costs, punitive damages, attorney’s fees and “for any just and further relief as the court may deem just and proper under these circumstances.”

The lawsuit names the defendants as the Elko County School District and McAnany, who is now the district’s secondary curriculum director, alleging they knew about Whitaker’s behavior and did not take action.

“Defendants had a duty to disclose these facts to the plaintiffs, their parents and others, but suppressed, concealed or failed to disclose this information,” the lawsuit states.

A timeline of events listed in the court documents alleges McAnany was informed six times starting in early 2016 up until March 2017 of Whitaker having “unlawful sexual relations with minor students.”

McAnany conducted an investigation in early 2016 after a custodial worker notified him of Whitaker “having unlawful sexual relationships with her minor students,” court documents state. In the following months, a parent and two teachers approached McAnany with more allegations, and at one time, a teacher produced a photo from social media that “evidenced Whitaker with a minor student.”

Another incident was reported in February 2017 when a custodial worker found a student and Whitaker in her classroom with the door locked and the lights turned off. The student was also part of the investigation that led to charges against Whitaker.

The school district was informed by the Elko County Sheriff’s office of an investigation in October of 2016 and the teacher showed the photo to district officials in March 2017.

The lawsuit states that despite the knowledge of Whitaker’s “sexual propensities toward minor students,” Whitaker was allowed to continue to teach, and to keep her classroom at the end of a hallway away from the main office and cover the only window that “provided … a separate and secluded environment with minor children.”

Part of her room was set up with a private decorated “reading area” in the back corner of the classroom that could not be seen from the hallway or any outside windows, the lawsuit stated.

Whitaker was arrested on June 6, 2017. In a press conference the day after her arrest, then Superintendent Jeff Zander said the district conducted its own investigation four months earlier in February, stating that the individuals interviewed for the investigation told the district they were unaware of sexual misconduct between Whitaker and students.

“Nobody was really willing to testify or give a statement that said, ‘yes, this happened,” Zander said. Undersheriff Ron Supp also said at the press conference that the sheriff’s office investigation had also met with resistance, but that the detectives conducted surveillance to gather information.

At the time, Zander said the district was going to update guidelines regarding social media communication between teachers and students, and put a “policy in place … to expressly prohibit those conversations taking place that create personal relationships.”

The lawsuit further alleges Whitaker used her position as a fourth grade teacher “to begin ‘grooming’ her young male students” and that the school district “represented to the public, plaintiffs and their families that Whitaker was a qualified teacher of young students and that she was worthy of their trust.”

Hooper and Madison were two of four male teens that told investigators they had sex with Whitaker when they were assigned as student aides during her “special” hour. Police reports and court documents concealed their identity as they were minors at the time of the investigation. They are the only two victims named in the current lawsuit.

Hooper states in the lawsuit he had been a former student of Whitaker’s in the fourth grade and had a job feeding her family’s animals outside of school. After becoming her student aide, they communicated through social media and began a sexual relationship that took place inside and outside of the classroom.

On Jan. 15, 2016, after a school employee walked in when Whitaker was sitting on Hooper’s lap, Hooper was then removed from her classroom without explanation or notification to his parents, according to the complaint. The following month, McAnany conducted an investigation into Whitaker’s actions for “unlawful and inappropriate sexual harassment, molestation and abuse of minor students.”

Madison became a student aide in the fall of 2016. He was reported in the lawsuit to have rejected Whitaker’s advances, causing Whitaker to become angry and “threaten to mark him absent.” The actions, including “sexual harassment, molestation and assault,” by Whitaker, caused Madison “to feel scared and threatened,” and become “emotionally distraught, humiliated and embarrassed.”

Shortly after graduation in June, Madison moved to Reno. On Aug. 18, he was reported missing by Reno police and was described as being “despondent.” He was found dead five days later at the age of 18 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The lawsuit states his suicide was “due to his resultant depression, humiliation and embarrassment.”

Whitaker was placed on administrative paid leave after her arrest, eventually resigning two months later. She was first charged with 12 counts of sexual conduct between a school employee and a pupil. Whitaker later pleaded no contest to four counts in a plea agreement in Elko District Court that dropped eight counts.

Whitaker was sentenced on Oct. 4 to eight to 20 years in prison by Elko District Judge Nancy Porter.

The case sent shockwaves through the tight-knit community of Wells when the investigation was publicly revealed after Whitaker’s arrest in June 2017. During victim impact testimony at Whitaker’s sentencing, parents testified that the revelations shattered the town, and pushed all four victims to leave Wells.

Hooper and Madison’s father are asking for a judgment against the district and McAnany that would find them guilty of “failure to address, prevent and/or remove known sexual predators from its ranks;” and order the district to address Title IX violations and enforce a comprehensive sexual harassment policy that includes training teachers on inappropriate student-teacher relationships and enact a “zero tolerance policy.”

The plaintiffs are also seeking $15,000 each for past, present and future general damages and an additional $15,000 in general damages for Terry Madison “for his individual grief and sorrow.” Also it asks the jury to provide any special damages for the plaintiffs, for the estate of Corbin Madison, attorney’s costs and any “just and further relief as the court may deem just and proper under these circumstance.”

The Elko County School District declined to comment, stating it is not their policy to discuss pending litigation.

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