SIOUX CITY, Iowa (CN) - An Iowa high school student claims in court that she was sexually exploited by a school mentorship program employee, who she says was encouraged to contact her outside of school.
The Sioux City Community School District's iJAG, short for Iowa Jobs After Graduation, is a mentorship program meant to "help at-risk students graduate who might not otherwise graduate based on financial, social and personal barriers," according to a 19-page lawsuit filed in Northern Iowa Federal Court on Thursday.
iJAG, which partners up with schools in Iowa and Illinois to mentor at-risk students, refers to itself on its website as "Iowa's best-kept secret" and claims that students call it "a miracle."
But during the 2014/2015 school year at Sioux City's North High School, iJAG employee Erick DeLeon and his former student, plaintiff K.J.F., were keeping another sort of secret, according to her lawsuit.
According to the complaint, DeLeon was hired to be a "teacher, advocate, guidance counselor and mentor" for at-risk students.
He was not a licensed teacher but "was given a class and classroom in the school building, took attendance, imposed discipline on students, participated in professional development of students, attended faculty meetings, helped with school activities, monitored the lunchroom and gave grades that applied toward graduation," the lawsuit says.
In addition to teaching a daily class at the high school, iJAG education specialists like DeLeon were encouraged to form "special, ongoing and intense relationships with students," which included exchanging cell phone numbers and maintaining contact with the students outside of school hours, according to the complaint.
The summer after K.J.F. had been in DeLeon's class, he texted her "after learning she was having some relationship problems with her boyfriend," the lawsuit states. That exchange allegedly led to DeLeon going to plaintiff's home "to further counsel her on her problems" and giving her a goodbye kiss on the mouth.
Although she was not in DeLeon's class when school began again, as part of the iJAG program K.J.F. "was to remain in regular contact with DeLeon to ensure she remained doing well," according to the complaint.
K.J.F. claims DeLeon "kissed and committed sex acts" with her at least twice in the fall and winter of 2014, and continued exchanging suggestive texts with her.
DeLeon cautioned K.J.F. not to contact him after 5 p.m. because that's when his pregnant wife came home, and he also told K.J.F. that if she told anyone about their relationship, "she would be unable to pursue her goal of becoming a teacher," according to the complaint.
The relationship came to light when the girl's friend reported it to her mother, who in turn notified school authorities, the lawsuit says.
DeLeon resigned in January of this year and was convicted of sexual exploitation by a school employee on Oct. 16, court records show.
He was sentenced to a five-year suspended jail sentence and three years of probation on Dec. 1, according to a local ABC News affiliate. He must also register as a sex offender.
K.J.F. says the Sioux City Community School District did not pursue further investigation after DeLeon's resignation. The lawsuit, which seeks punitive damages, alleges the school district and iJAG did not properly supervise DeLeon.
"DeLeon's actions and conduct were committed in furtherance of his duties and responsibilities as an 'education specialist' and it was reasonably expected or foreseeable by the school district and iJAG that such actions would take place by enabling and encouraging continuous contact, home visits and regular cell phone contact during and outside school hours," the complaint states. "The school district and iJAG provided DeLeon the opportunity to victimize plaintiff due to his position as mentor, counselor, advocate and teacher."
Although iJAG CEO and President Laurie Phelan was not willing to comment extensively on the pending litigation, she told Courthouse News that both iJAG and the school district do thorough private and government background checks on all employees, which go beyond satisfying the U.S. Department of Education's requirements.
"I want people to know that iJAG has a high level of integrity. We're not some fly-by-night operation where no one is checking on these things," Phelan said.
Alison Benson, director of communications and community engagement for the Sioux City Community School District, confirmed that the school conducted a national background check on DeLeon before he was hired.
K.J.F.'s lawyer, Edward Keane, did not immediately return emails or phone messages requesting comment.
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