Custer County High School

Custer County High School in Miles City, photographed in 2012.

Editor's note: This story contains graphic details that may be disturbing for some readers. 

The Miles City Unified School District denied Monday that staff knew anything about a former athletic trainer allegedly sexually abusing students for decades.

The denial comes in response to a lawsuit filed last month in Miles City alleging the now-78-year-old James "Doc" Jensen operated a program of systematic grooming and sexual abuse of teen athletes from the early 1970s to around 1998.

The suit was filed on behalf of 19 students, although the number of possible victims could rise to as many as 100, say the attorneys in the case. The suit names the school district, Custer County District High School and John Does 1-200 representing any school employee who may have known about the alleged abuse but failed to stop it.

In addition to its denials, the district also filed a cross-complaint against Jensen alleging "actual fraud" and "constructive fraud," saying that he "intentionally and fraudulently misled the School District."

The documents don't deny that abuse occurred, but argue that the district should not be held liable. 

During his decades-long tenure as athletic trainer, Jensen devised what he called "the Program," a system he told young male athletes would boost their athletic performance by increasing their testosterone, according to the alleged victims' lawsuit. To produce more testosterone, Jensen convinced the boys in "the Program" that he would need to masturbate them, the suit claims. The suit also alleges Jensen performed athletic physicals on boys despite having no medical certification, and that during interactions with some of the boys he used fingers to penetrate their anuses. 

In a telephone conversation with The Gazette the day the alleged victims' suit was filed, Jensen admitted to some of the allegations, including masturbating boys, but denied other allegations.

The district's response Monday acknowledges that the district received a complaint from a parent about Jensen in late 1997. 

"The School District further admits that the complaint received was investigated and, upon information and belief, involved 'general' unease and not the specific concerns of the present complaint," the response states. 

The cross-complaint described the concern as "vague in nature and nothing near the allegations recently made."

The document goes on to say that "the School District immediately investigated and found two other individuals who had the same or similar concerns regarding Jensen. ... the School District was unable to demonstrate more than Jensen making students feel uncomfortable."

On Dec. 15, 1997, the district "directed Jensen regarding 'appropriate student/staff interactions'" and directed him to work under supervision of coaches, not to give massages or "body rub downs" without supervision, "to not have students at his house, and to not otherwise mentor students."

When Jensen's stipend ended five months later, the district did not renew his employment. 

"The School District had no knowledge of Jensen's true activities," the cross-complaint says. It cites The Gazette's reporting of Jensen's admissions of sexual abuse as evidence that Jensen "provided intentionally untruthful and misleading information to the School District."

Fred Anderson, a Great Falls legislator who was principal at Custer County District High School from 1982-2002, previously told the Great Falls Tribune the district first heard the misconduct allegations in 1998 and that the superintendent subsequently let Jensen go.

Anderson declined to speak with The Gazette.

Montana law requires all school employees who suspect abuse to report it to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. Anderson told the Tribune that after he told the superintendent, he doesn’t know what happened.

The district largely denied the allegations in the original lawsuit or said that it didn't have the knowledge to respond. 

Jensen's role

The district's suit against Jensen does significant stage setting when explaining his employment.

It cites the "sometime insurmountable, and always difficult, need to ensure that every adult associated with the school is, always has been, and always will serve the best interests of their schools. But as with any human institution, absent a clairvoyance that no person possesses, this is an unattainable task."

It repeatedly notes that the district has attempted to use policies and procedures to ensure student and staff safety, and that "the School District has without fail investigated, disciplined, terminated and reported staff of concern."

It cited "multiple staff who were investigated, removed and reported to the State, including two who were ultimately charged with crimes" between 1990 and 2000. 

The complaint says the School District provided "low-cost physical examinations at the school" to help students comply with Montana High School Association-required physicals to compete in athletics.

"Multiple volunteers" provided "each element of the exams, overseen by one or more doctors also in the rooms ... Volunteers included community members with specialized areas of expertise. ... Jensen was one community member who routinely volunteers for the School District."

The complaint sheds light on Jensen's time in the district.  

"From an unknown point in the 1970s through 1992, while employed elsewhere in the community, Jensen served the School District as a volunteer in a number of capacities including substitute teacher and janitor. Jensen at some point became known for his 'expertise' as an athletic trainer and was endorsed by local doctors for that skill," the cross-complaint says. 

The document says Jensen gained trust in the community and that as school administrators changed, "they relied upon Jensen's lengthy past with the School District in the belief that he was a trustworthy volunteer for the School District."

It cites a time in 1992 when "a local doctor advocated before the School District's Board of Trustees to commend him for his volunteer work with the School District."

Jensen began to receive a stipend for athletic training services in 1994, which continued for the 1995, 1996 and 1997 school years, according to the response and cross-complaint.

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