In 2019, three Fairview High students pressed charges against the school’s then-star quarterback, Aidan Atkinson, for sexual assault and harassment. The criminal case went to trial a year later, ending with an acquittal on all but two harassment charges.
But as the case wrapped up, it launched a new era of scrutiny into a school culture that some say failed for decades to take steps to prevent sexual misconduct.
And despite principal turnover and several initiatives to change that culture, the 2022-23 school year kicked off last month with reports of a fresh wave of criminal and civil litigation involving sexual misconduct.
The surfacing of the allegations — including a multiple rape conviction — is fueling skepticism among some students who have been pressing district officials for change.
“I’ve gotten kind of used to an administration saying they were going to change,” Fairview senior Sadie Hudson told Boulder Reporting Lab, “and then nothing resulting from it.”
One of the cases, which has not yet gone to trial, was brought by two former Fairview students in 2021. The federal civil rights lawsuit alleges that Boulder Valley School District and former Fairview Principal Don Stensrud — who was in the position from 2004 to 2021 — “failed to respond” when the women brought sexual misconduct complaints to school administrators, in violation of federal law.
The case was brought under Title IX, the law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. The mandate requires schools to investigate harassment claims, remedy the claims, and prevent repeat occurrences, the lawsuit says. Fairview, according to allegations in the suit, “exhibited a total failure to implement even the most basic requirements under Title IX.” Plaintiffs further allege that Stensrud and other Fairview officials contributed to a “policy of deliberate indifference by perpetuating an environment of fear and sexism.”
A separate, criminal case involves a former Fairview football player who was convicted of sexually assaulting another student in 2016 and 2017. In September 2022, the same defendant will face another four counts of felony sexual assault for a separate incident, according to reports.
And another case, whose trial concluded in February 2022, led to the conviction of a former Fairview lacrosse player of raping three students. The convicted student, who was tried in juvenile court, was sentenced to 90 days in jail and two years of probation. Two of those survivors brought the Title IX civil lawsuit against BVSD.
The initial plaintiff court filing in the Title IX suit said the Boulder Police Department and Boulder District Attorney’s Office conducted an investigation in 2020 into “the historical problems at Fairview dating back to at least the early 2000s.” Boulder police, the attorneys wrote, “received numerous reports documenting an environment of fear and sexism.”
‘Crucially important that we establish trust’
BVSD carried out a monthslong investigation into Stensrud last year while he was on paid administrative leave. The investigation preceded his retirement, at the end of 2021. According to news reports at that time, Stensrud said he had planned his retirement for that year to coincide with his son’s graduation. Randy Barber, chief communications officer for the district, declined to comment on the investigation and whether its findings were connected to Strensrud’s departure.
The district announced soon after Strensrud retired that it would change its policies regarding sexual harassment. It said it would provide training to faculty, employees and community members to better handle accusations of misconduct and support survivors, according to a Denver Post report.
The district also hired the first permanent principal since Stensrud. Scarlet Chopin, former assistant principal of Evergreen High School, took over the role earlier this year. She pledged transparency with the Fairview community.
“Knowing the difficult times that this community has been through — with allegations of serious misconduct within our community, as well as related litigation and media coverage — it is crucially important that we reestablish trust,” Chopin wrote in an email to community members as school was set to begin.
“Whenever I can — I will strive to share tough information with our community — before you hear it in the rumor mill or media,” before alluding to the newest lawsuits. Chopin did not respond to a request for comment from Boulder Reporting Lab.
Since 2019, the district has strived to improve its education around sexual assault prevention across its elementary, middle and high schools, according to BVSD Health and Wellness Coordinator Jordan Goto.
“There’s also been a lot of change and improvements to our policies and how students are able to report incidences of sexual harassment [and] sexual assault,” Goto told Boulder Reporting Lab.
However, Goto said that she recognizes how important it is for students, parents and faculty to contiune to engage in the process of improving the district’s culture and educational programs around sexual misconduct.
‘People are acknowledging that there is an issue.’
Hudson, the Fairview High senior, is one student who is engaged in that process. She is an honors student and president of the Women’s Empowerment Club at the school. She’s also been an advocate for reform at Fairview for years. Hudson said she doesn’t feel safe at school. She was a first year when Atkinson was first arrested, and her entire high school experience has involved Fairview’s reckoning with sexual misconduct.
“I don’t think the student body trusts the administrators,” Hudson said. “I would trust the counselors, but I wouldn’t trust anyone on their administrative team.”
Hudson said the past years have brought these issues to the attention of students more than ever.
“I’ve noticed that people are more aware of what’s going on at Fairview,” she said. “We’ve had several walkouts. I wouldn’t say that’s led to change, but it’s led to a feeling within the student body … that, at large, people are acknowledging that there is an issue more frequently.”
Hudson is a member of BVSD’s Title IX Advisory Council, a group of students, parents and community members who have worked with the district since 2020 to improve student access to Title IX resources.
At BVSD, the council has organized presentations raising awareness about what Title IX is and has arranged opportunities for students to meet with Elizabeth Francis, the district’s Title IX coordinator.
Francis, who took on the newly created role in 2021, said that the advisory council has an important voice in determining the district’s new approach to improving responses to sexual misconduct.
“[The advisory council] is not a passive council. They are actively providing input on how effective our educational strategies have been at school for students,” she said. “They have been directly participating in selecting what type of third parties come in to provide sexual health education.”
Working with the advisory council is just one aspect of Francis’s job. She also oversees Title IX investigations that the district conducts and works to educate community members on what Title IX is and what rights it gives students.
“I have a primary focus of working on repairing and healing our relationship with all of our community and our students, and making sure that we are clearly communicating all of the ways that we are implementing supports for our students,” Francis said. “I think if people see and know about the efforts that we’ve made and the resources that we’ve dedicated to this work, that will create some healing.”
Some hopeful new leadership will bring change
Senior Sydney Wu is also a member of the Title IX council and a Fairview student. She said she hopes the council’s efforts will keep the conversation around sexual abuse at the forefront.
“I think that because this is a conversation that has been started, and it is a conversation that the Title IX Advisory council will not allow to die, then it is something that will spread through our building,” Wu said.
Hudson and Wu both expressed frustration with the administrators of Fairview, in particular past interim principal Terry Gillach, a retired BVSD principal who was in the position last school year, and faced critiscm from community members for comments he made that some students took as being dismissive of sexual abuse at the school. The administration has faced significant criticism and some turnover since 2019.
“Due to the continued failure of the administrative staff to support students, the Fairview staff has largely lost the trust and respect of the student,” a student wrote to the BVSD school board in 2021, according to an email obtained by Boulder Reporting Lab, following an assembly that attempted to address the culture surrounding sexual misconduct at Fairview. “Students do not feel safe to report issues to the administration, and that will not change by requesting the students to ‘be nicer to each other.’”
Wu said she spoke with Chopin, Fairview’s new principal, before the start of the semester. She said she’s hopeful new leadership will improve things at the school.
“I think that there has been a lot of turnover, especially right at the top of our administration and so I would not say that the problem is fixed,” Wu said. “I think that having a female principal is also a great perspective … and I think that Dr. Chopin can bring a different perspective than the principals they’ve had in the past who are men.”
Hudson, who also spoke with Chopin, is more reluctant to say if a change in leadership will create meaningful change around sexual misconduct.
“I’m hopeful that with the change in leadership, there will be change, but that’s a precautionary hope,” she said.
Hudson wants the new school administration to focus on more education around Title IX and sexual assault, putting some of the power back in students’ hands to stay informed about their rights under the law.
Educating students about their Title IX rights now, she said, is important because “if the administration were to … ignore those rights, [it] would give students the power to be able to go to local authorities or other law enforcement and actually understand that they have been denied their rights.”