Lawyers for the Custer County School District said the district didn't have specific knowledge about a sexual abuse system allegedly run by a former athletic trainer and filed three sets of documents Thursday in Custer County District Court.
The lawsuit against James E. Jensen and the Custer County School District reached 31 plaintiffs in a Dec. 18 filing. It alleges Jensen systematically groomed young athletes for abuse during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s while acting as an athletic trainer for Custer County District High School.
The district's filings push back against the plaintiffs' presentation of a 1997 memo sent from school administrators to Jensen, citing parent complaints and instructions given to him about his interactions with students.
"Perhaps speaking to a broader audience than just the School District and Court, Plaintiffs base their Motion on the belief that a 'smoking gun' exists in this case," a filing opposing the plaintiff's amendment says. "The document they cite is not new, is not 'smoking,' and, if anything, supports the School District's position that, had it known of Mr. Jensen's true nature and actions, it would have addressed them."
The memo gave Jensen specific directives: That his athletic training activities be directly supervised by a coach; that he not work with students one-on-one; that he not give "body rub downs" to students without a third person present; that student athletes not be invited to his house, generally or to stay overnight, without another adult present; and that he stop any "Mentoring Programs" with student athletes.
The district first cited the memo in its filing responding to the suit's original complaint, and new filings continue to argue that "there is no indication whatsoever that the School District had any information beyond that Mr. Jensen made one or more students 'uncomfortable.'"
"Without the benefit of hindsight, Mr. Jensen's actions — about which the School District actually knew — were relatively innocuous," the filing says. "In 1996, providing a sports massage (at the time called 'rub downs'), having students over to one's family home, or activities outside of the School District were all insufficient acts to lead to the immediate belief (or to be able to prove) that someone is capable of the misconduct Mr. Jensen appears to have perpetuated."
The filing argues that the plaintiffs' amended complaint and addition of 12 new plaintiffs would require the school district to redo much of its discovery process, creating an "undue burden," and that claims of negligence per se are improper.
It also asks for an extension of deadlines in the case by six months if the court allows the plaintiffs' filing to stand.
Dan Rice, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Friday it's unreasonable for all of the alleged victims to be included in the initial filing.
“The additional 12 guys added by the amended complaint were people who woke up on Sept. 21, were having an otherwise normal day, and then saw the face of the man who abused them as children in the news,” he said. “That was a hard day for those individuals. They have standing to file their own separate case against the school, but adding them to the current case is most efficient.”
A separate motion pushes back against plaintiffs' demands for information through the discovery process.
"The School District has been working tirelessly in good faith to obtain information that in most cases does not exist," the filing says, citing haphazardly organized paper documents and witnesses who no longer live in Miles City, are medically incapacitated or are dead. "The School District is not withholding information from the Plaintiffs — there is simply not the information that Plaintiffs desire, or, as the School District has repeatedly informed Plaintiffs' counsel, it is in the process of gathering, reviewing and redacting, and will be produced as soon as possible."
A third filing argues that there's no legal standing for the school district to be on the hook for attorney's fees, arguing that Jensen was only loosely related to the school.
"Mr. Jensen was not a regular employee of the School District; he was essentially a volunteer with after-school programs. ... Mr. Jensen's admission and acts have no bearing on any liability of the School District," the filing states.
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 district's original response and a cross-complaint accusing Jensen of defrauding the district.