Franklin school district faces suit

Franklin Area School District is facing a federal lawsuit that alleges that the district, superintendent Pamela Dye and junior/senior high school principal Christina Cohlhepp failed to act appropriately to protect a girl who was sexually abused by a teacher in the 2016-2017 school year.

The lawsuit was filed this week in federal court in Erie by attorneys Wayne Hundertmark, of Franklin, and Robert Varsek, of Oil City, who are representing the two plaintiffs in the case.

The allegations involve Kyle Askins, a former health and physical education teacher in the Franklin district.

Askins, who is also named in the lawsuit as a defendant, pleaded guilty in May 2017 to felony statutory sexual assault on a 13-year-old female student and other related charges. He was 25 at the time.

Askins is serving a sentence of 54 months to 20 years in the state correctional facility in Waymart in Wayne County, according to court documents.

The lawsuit alleges that the plantiffs brought concerns to the attention of Dye and Cohlhepp, who was then the Franklin Middle School principal.

The lawsuit says that by the second half of the 2016-17 school year, it had become widely known among students and faculty that Askins and the girl shared a mutual affection that went well beyond the boundaries of a professional student-teacher relationship.

The plantiffs, according to the lawsuit, were approached by other middle school faculty, who expressed concerns after Askins had given the girl a Valentine’s Day gift.

Among other concerns listed in the lawsuit were physical closeness, overfamiliarity, the girl referring to Askins by his first name and Askins appearing at non school-sanctioned events to spend time with the girl.

“In response to the plantiffs’ expressed concerns, Cohlhepp downplayed Askins’ behavior by stating that Askins was a ‘good guy’; ‘a new and inexperienced young teacher who just needs more training about boundaries with students’; and that the district could not control what teachers, and specifically Askins, do with students outside of the school,” the lawsuit says.

Cohlhepp told the plantiffs that she and Dye would investigate the matter, counsel Askins on the inappropriate nature of giving gifts to students and keep Askins and the girl separate during school hours, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also says that middle school faculty on several occasions alerted Cohlhepp to the fact that Askins was spending an inordinate amount of time with the girl and that their relationship appeared to be overly familiar and inappropriate.

In spite of these concerns being raised, the lawsuit says, Askins and the girl continued to meet on school property before and after school and engage in sexual contact.

The lawsuit says that in August 2016, the girl was grieving deaths in her family and that Askins had assumed the role of a personal confidant, paying more attention to her under the pretense of providing emotional support.

The lawsuit alleges that due to the defendants’ indifferent reactions to the concerns being raised, Askins was enabled to continue his abuse of the emotionally vulnerable girl.

The lawsuit describes Askins’ conduct as outrageous and wanton and committed in total, reckless disregard for the girl’s well-being and the laws intended to protect her.

The suit also alleges that the defendants violated the girl’s civil rights, citing the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects against improper and illegal intrusions on the integrity of the body and person.

The lawsuit states that the district didn’t advise law enforcement of the situation.

The district contacted police on May 1, 2017, after charges had been filed against Askins, according to a criminal complaint filed through district judge Patrick Lowrey’s office.

Charges were filed after police responded to a report of the girl leaving home in the middle of the night, the complaint said.

The plaintiffs are asking for a jury to award punitive damages for expenses in obtaining treatment, education at an alternative school district and other means of abating the effects of the abuse.

“As a result of the outrageous abuse she suffered at Askins’ hands, minor plaintiff has sustained severe harm, including, but not limited to, severe emotional distress and anxiety, depression and social withdrawal, including withdrawal from affectionate contact with her parents and family members, disruption of her ability to enjoy life’s pleasures and destruction of her sense of safety and well-being,” the lawsuit says.

The defendants have 21 days to respond to the charges.

Dye told the newspaper on Friday that she was unable to comment on the ongoing case.