— Story by Andrea Lutz – MTN News
MILES CITY – School officials in Miles City saw evidence of sexual misconduct by a former longtime athletic trainer years ago but failed to report it, attorneys for victims allege in a new court filing Friday.
Officials for the Miles City Unified School District, however, argue that the claims don’t have merit and should be dismissed. They say the district did the best it could do with what little information it had at the time.
The trainer, James Jensen, 79, has been named in the suit in Custer County District Court and has pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the abuse. He also faces state charges for possessing child pornography.
On March 6, attorneys for the Miles City school district stated it had no documented information regarding sexual abuse of students. The district maintains it’s not liable and also that prior to 2011, Montana school districts were instructed to report incidents of suspected parental abuse, which does not include Jensen.
Attorneys John Heenan, Dan Rice and Bryant Martin, who represent the 32 plaintiffs in the civil case, maintain that the district did know there was abuse happening but failed to take action.
In their response, Heenan and Rice have brought forth new evidence in which they allege Jensen continued to work within the district and had inappropriate contact with students until the late summer and fall of 1998.
The evidence includes interviews with prior school district employees and newspaper articles from Miles City and the school that date into the 1997-1998 school year.
As interviews to collect evidence for the case continue, plaintiffs’ attorneys said former coaches and district officials witnessed inappropriate touching, including “seeing things underneath the shorts.”
One victim said he was sexually assaulted over 100 times in a time frame after the year 1997.
Survivors in the case who agreed to speak with Q2 News on a condition of anonymity have previously stated that rub downs and massages were mandatory by coaching staff. Wrestling athletes were asked to line up and wait their turn for their mandatory ‘rub downs’ wearing small, school-provided towels, where the towel was the only item covering a student’s genitals during a ‘rub downs’ according to a victim.
In their latest court filing, plaintiffs’ attorneys reference a recent interview gathered in the case with former wrestling coach Jack Raymond. Raymond acknowledges seeing touching between Jensen and student-athletes but also said he was not aware of any parents coming to the board with concerns over Jensen.
Raymond also acknowledged the volume of rumors which were circulating regarding Jensen.
Fred Anderson, who was principal at Custer County High School from 1982 until 2002, told lawyers during a February interview that he was made aware of a concern about behavior in the training room where Jensen worked. The parent said the behavior was inappropriate but Anderson said it was not known if it was sexual.
Anderson is currently a state legislator in Great Falls.
While the case is already scheduled for trial in March 2020, currently both parties are sorting through evidence and in the process of interviewing witnesses.
Jensen is accused of operating a sophisticated ritual of sexual abuse for decades while serving as the athletic trainer for the Miles City Unified School District.
He is accused of luring male student-athletes into what Jensen called “The Program,” where students were given sexual massages and rubdowns in what he claimed would boost athletic ability.
In 1997, the district issued Jensen a disciplinary memo regarding appropriate conduct with students after the district was notified by at least three individuals involving male student athletes, where Jensen is said to have “violated the spirit of intent of policies.” Jensen was then given a variety of directives for proper conduct.
However, the parties disagree on when Jensen finally left the district and what led to that departure. The timing is important because, the plaintiffs contend, it could indicate culpability by the district.
Jensen was still performing athletic trainer tasks as a part of the district until 1998, according to new evidence filed in the plaintiffs’ Friday response.
On Friday, a former student-athlete and survivor of Jensen’s abuse confirmed the plantiffs’ account to Q2 News anonymously. He said he remembered Jensen being involved up until the late summer or fall of 1998 while at football practices.
“I was seeing him through the summer,” the survivor said. “I had several severe injuries as a sophomore. This was why I was (working) hard into the program.”
He said there was no formal announcement regarding Jensen’s department but remembers being told by Jensen himself that the trainer was retiring that fall to focus on “The Program.”
“Putting all of his efforts into the program and help as many kids as he could,” said the survivor.
In their newly unveiled evidence, attorneys for plaintiffs also reference an article from the Miles City Star that dates back to September of 1998 where the school district approves the hire of a new “certified athletic trainer.”
In October, the Miles City Unified School District filed a cross-complaint alleging that Jensen intentionally and fraudulently misled the school district in violation of his duty.
At that time, the district said in recent decades it implemented policies and procedures to further protect students, including many of those requested by plaintiffs.
Jensen appeared in a Missoula federal courtroom Tuesday, where he pleaded guilty to charges and admitted to the judge that he abused 100 boys during his tenure in Miles City.