As students were settling into their classrooms at Thompson K-8 International Academy in Michigan one day in April 2018, the school’s principal came on the intercom to address complaints of sexual harassment against a sixth-grade teacher, Derek Atlas.
“Fake News,” the principal allegedly called the accusations, which had reached local news stations after a student filed a civil lawsuit in February against the school district and Atlas.
When 11-year-old Anna* joined Atlas’ class, he routinely called her “princess” and “baby,” according to the federal lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division.
Soon, in October 2017, he “began to engage in inappropriate behavior toward [Anna] based on her gender, by sexually harassing her by touching her in a sexual manner,” according to the complaint.
“Atlas began the sexual harassment by touching and caressing her ears and playing with her hair,” according to the complaint. “Atlas would also touch her arms and massage her shoulders, touching her skin to skin and made [Anna] feel like he was trying to feel her body.”
Atlas and the school district, Southfield Public Schools, are both named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Other students began asking Anna about the alleged interactions. Some told her that “it looked like [he] wanted to rape her,” according to the lawsuit.
Anna’s parents claim that she went to another teacher, then to the principal, who eventually called a meeting with all of the involved parties.
After the meeting, Anna was sent back to Atlas’ class, where she was allegedly “retaliated against, ridiculed, called a ‘baby’ and humiliated for her complaints of sexual harassment.” Afterward, Anna’s parents filed a police report with the Southfield Police Department. She and her brother were allegedly moved to different schools.
When news broke of the civil lawsuit, Head of Primary School Paula Lightsey allegedly took to the airwaves to squash the scandal.
But Anna wasn’t Atlas’ only victim, according to a new lawsuit filed on behalf of another sixth-grade student, Cassie.*
Just like Anna, Cassie’s harassment began in October, when she claims Atlas began “to engage in inappropriate behavior towards [her] based on her gender, by sexually harassing her by touching her in a sexual manner and talking about her clothing and making sexual comments to her,” according to the complaint. “Atlas continued to sexually harass [Cassie] by affectionately touching her shoulders and telling her, ‘Just because I touch you doesn’t mean I want you.’”
“Atlas continued to harass [Cassie] by physically blocking her path in a flirtatious way asking her, ‘Do you want to fight?’” the lawsuit claims. What’s more, Cassie allegedly saw Atlas harass other students in the classroom, including “caressing their hair and ears, rubbing their shoulders, and whispering in their ears.”
When Cassie told her mother, their family “immediately set up a meeting with the principal,” who assured Cassie’s parents that “Atlas came from the Detroit Public Schools, that he had an impeccable record and that there were never any complaints like this made against Atlas before,” the lawsuit alleges.
After Lightsey made her announcement about “fake news,” Cassie told her parents she felt “unsafe” at the school. According to the lawsuit, the alleged harassment continued until Atlas was “ultimately removed from the classroom.”
“Southfield Public Schools investigates all allegations of inappropriate behavior,” district spokeswoman Anita Corbett told mlive.com in an email. “Currently, the employee in question is on administrative leave. The district does not comment on matters under investigation.”
It’s unclear when Atlas was placed on administrative leave.
Both lawsuits demand a jury trial and ask for an amount in excess of $75,000 plus exemplary damages and attorney’s fees.
*Pseudonyms were given to minor victims in the lawsuits.