Dixon school board, officials ‘enabled pattern of bullying,’ suit alleges

DIXON – A Dixon High School student and his mother are suing the School Board, saying in their complaint that it and others “harbored, fostered and approved of a toxic culture and practice of bullying, harassment and violence among students” after school officials allegedly knew about, but failed to stop, prevent or report two students’ verbal and physical attacks on other students.

The lawsuit, filed Nov. 24 in Lee County Circuit Court on behalf of the minor student, his mother and her friend, none of whom are identified, seeks $50,000 plus the cost of the lawsuit in each of its 24 counts.

It names the school board, DHS Principal Michael Grady, DHS counselor Steve Hodson, Dixon Public Schools assistant superintendent Daniel Rick, DHS physical education teacher Jon Empen, DHS physical education teacher and strength coach Andrew McKay, DHS physical education teacher Jonathan Gieson, board member Brad Sibley and DHS students Hunter Pate and Shane Nelson as defendants.

Sibley has also worked as the operations lieutenant at the Dixon Police Department since 2003 and has served on the Lee County United Way Board since 2018.

Pate is a senior on the school’s wrestling and football teams. Nelson graduated from DHS in May. Both are 18.

The 69-page suit alleges that in the fall 2019 semester school officials “knew, or should have known” the student was “made the target of multiple bullying attacks” by Pate and Nelson, but “failed to stop, supervise or to guard against” them.

School officials also had a “duty, voluntary or otherwise, to prevent and/or protect” the student from “undergoing such violent attacks,” and “knew of these patterns and practices, but deliberately disregarded anti-violence and bullying policies set forth” in the Illinois School Code and the district’s own policies, the suit claims.

School officials did not report Pate and Nelson’s conduct to the Dixon Police Department or to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, it says.

The officials instead “downplayed and/or ignored the violent attacks directed” at the student and other students, and “adhered to a ‘boys will be boys’ mentality and ignored the violence repeatedly inflicted” on this and other students.

In a statement to Sauk Valley Media provided by its attorney, Frazier Satterly, of Peoria, the school board said it was surprised to be named in a lawsuit, and that it denies the allegations.

“We look forward to vigorously defending the claim and have forwarded this information to our attorney and insurance carrier for review and response,” the board said in the statement.

“We want to assure our students, parents, and community that we have policies and practices in place that ensures the safety and well-being of all of our students,” the statement read. “We have and will continue to review, monitor, and implement our policies and practices with fidelity and integrity to ensure our students are safe while in our care.”

Pate and Nelson’s attacks

According to the suit, Pate and Nelson’s “bullying campaign” launched against the student all occurred during school hours, in the school’s gym and in the boy’s locker room and restroom.

Pate and Nelson’s attacks consisted of spanking him, choking him, picking him up by his backpack straps and slamming him into lockers, placing him in a headlock, kneeing him in the thigh, head-butting his head into lockers, picking him up and throwing him onto the ground, the suit says.

They also “insert[ed] their thumbs between [the student’s] buttocks, flash[ed] their genitals at [the student] and us[ed] their cellphones to broadcast the attacks on social media and to further harass [the student],” according to the suit.

At least once, McKay witnessed Pate and Nelson pick up the student by his backpack straps and slam him into lockers, it says.

Their attacks against the student ultimately meant he “suffered, and continues to suffer, severe, permanent physical, mental and emotional injuries, great mental and emotional anguish,” the suit claims.

Neither Pate nor Nelson have been charged criminally by the Lee County state’s attorney.

Neither responded to Sauk Valley Media’s requests for comment Thursday.

Empen, Gieson, Hodson, Grady, McKay and Rick’s failure to report

At the heart of the suit, and what the plaintiffs will need to prove in court, is a timeline of conversations, meetings and confrontations between the student, his mother and school and law enforcement officials over the alleged attacks by Nelson and Pate.

Sauk Valley Media has filed Freedom of Information Act requests for records of the events.

On Nov. 22, 2019, the mother allegedly reported to the school and the Dixon Police Department the attacks on her son.

Hodson responded, telling the mother and the student in separate conversations that he saw one attack on the school’s video surveillance system the week prior, and that both Pate and Nelson were placed in in-school suspension during gym class.

Grady told the student on Nov. 22 that Pate and Nelson would not be in gym class that day, but they would return that Monday.

Grady also talked with Pate, who later told another student he heard a freshman “snitched” on him and that he was going to beat that student’s ass, the suit claims.

Pate and Nelson on Nov. 22 also allegedly called other students “snitches” and verbally and physically abused them in front of school staff.

Three days later, on Nov. 25, the mother met with Grady and Rick. She also that day reported the incidents to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

In the meeting, Grady said he interviewed Pate and Nelson about the bullying allegations. He and Rick each admitted they failed to interview other students that were subject to their bullying, the suit claims.

It further says that during the meeting, Grady and Rick admitted that Hodson, Empen, McKay and Gieson “failed to disclose, report and document the nature and history” of Pate and Nelson’s attack on the student.

Grady and Rick assured the mother that the school district has a “strict policy of locker room supervision by staff” and that Pate and Nelson would be “strictly supervised at the school going forward.”

Rick also admitted to the mother that the school district has been “dealing with Pate’s pushing and hitting since Pate was in kindergarten.”

He admitted, too, that he had not been performing “spot checks” in the locker room during the period in which the attacks on the student allegedly took place, the suit says.

Sibley’s role, according to the suit

On Nov. 26, Sibley appeared at the mother’s work, without invitation and in a threatening manner, insisting that she mend the professional relationship between her, her employer, Sibley, the police department and the board, it says.

“Sibley engaged in this calculated and harassing course of action towards [the mother], [the mother’s] employees and/or coworkers and/or employer with the intention of silencing [the mother], causing her shame, embarrassment and with the intentions of jeopardizing her job standing,” the suit says.

Sibley told the mother that “she should know better” than to contact the Illinois State Police to request a formal investigation, called the mother a “mama bear” and ridiculed her for suggesting that the board conduct a victim sensitive interview of her son, the suit says.

In July, Sibley disclosed “private, sensitive details” of the son’s abuse allegations to the president and the directors of the board of the mother’s employer, and to other community leaders, insisting that the mother “be admonished for reporting the abuse allegations in an attempt to harass, embarrass and silence” her, the suit says.

Months later, in September, Sibley circulated communications to community leaders, board members and members of the mother’s employers, the suit claims.

In the emails, Sibley suggests the mother should be “handled properly” and “disciplined.”

He also accuses the mother of professional improprieties stemming from her request for a formal investigation into the abuse allegations disclosed by her son and other students, the suit says.

“Instead of conducting a thorough and timely investigation into the abuse allegations,” the suit argues, Sibley “used his power, control and authority as a police officer, as a DCUSD 170 school board member and as a board member of [the mother’s] employer, to deliberately interfere with and/or intercept or prevent a formal and thorough investigation.”

Ultimately because of Sibley’s actions, the suit argues, the mother has “suffered severe emotional distress, fear of her personal safety, livelihood and well-being, and will continue to do so for the indefinite future.”

Sibley’s attorneys, Scott Dolezal, of Chicago, and Alison Harrington, of Naperville, did not respond to requests for comment.

Timothy Eggert

Tim covers criminal justice and public safety from Lee and Whiteside counties. Before joining Sauk Valley Media in August 2020, he reported on legal affairs and state government from Springfield. He's worked at newspapers on both of Michigan's peninsulas, and has a master's degree in public affairs reporting and a bachelor's degree in English.