The first lawsuit filed under the Child Victims Act against a Niagara County public school district was submitted to the courts Tuesday.
The lawsuit alleges that between 2002 and 2003 certain officials in the Niagara Falls City School District knew of allegations against a sexually abusive music teacher at Gaskill Middle School, Philip R. Sims, but did not immediately report the allegations to law enforcement when they became aware of the incidents.
By inaction, the district failed in its responsibility under the law to protect students from a dangerous situation, the court filing said.
Sims was arrested by local police in 2004 and eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree sodomy, a felony. He was originally charged with rape and endangering the welfare of a child, in addition to the count to which he pled.
The anonymous plaintiff, identified as “T.H.,” alleged in the court filing that between 1998 and 2004 she was sexually abused by Sims, who began victimizing her when she was his student at the middle school and between 13 and 14 years old.
T.H. was repeatedly orally, vaginally and anally abused over several years by Sims at school and in her home during private music lessons, she told police during a November 2003 interview. In all the situations the survivor described to investigators, Sims was presenting himself in his capacity as an instructor.
The plaintiff in the case was scarred by the abuse and continues to deal with its emotional and psychological ramifications, her attorney Michael Skoney said Wednesday. She has survived two suicide attempts and remains in ongoing therapy to continue on a healing path.
“In many regards, she is just starting on that journey,” Skoney said.
The plaintiff was not prepared to speak publicly about the matter on Wednesday, Skoney added.
The lawsuit is among hundreds filed in the state under the Child Victims Act, a state legislative measure that created a “look-back window” allowing survivors to sue their abusers even if the statute of limitations for civil claims had lapsed.
T.H.’s lawsuit contends a different, unidentified female victim reported “sexual offenses” committed by Sims in an “educational setting” to an unnamed district school principal in June 2002, but the “district school principal failed to report to law enforcement authorities the allegations of child abuse,” court documents said.
A year later, in November 2003, officials, including members of the Board of Education, became aware of allegations of “multiple sex acts abuse” by Sims, according to the suit.
Skoney said Sims was suspended from his teaching duties sometime in November 2003. T.H. spoke to NFPD investigators Nov. 24 of that year, according to court records. The allegations that officials had knowledge of the abuse but did not act are supported by information and documents obtained from the law firm’s independent investigatory process, he said.
The report of abuse to the principal in 2002 was “verbal,” Skoney said. Knowledge of the abuse by a board member was corroborated by a reported call to a police officer that a board member made “privately” in 2003, he said.
According to Skoney, the member was instructed by an officer to file a formal police report, but failed to do so.
An article in the Buffalo News detailing Sims’s 2004 sentencing hearing noted that allegations of inappropriate contact between Sims and other female students dating back to the 1980s had surfaced but were not substantiated by county prosecutors or district investigators. The story also referenced multiple letters sent by Sims’ victim to the presiding judge “urging mercy for Sims.”
“What I did was clearly wrong. I admit that,” Sims said at the hearing, according to the News. “I apologize for the damage I caused.”
The district had not yet been served with the lawsuit as of Thursday, Board of Education attorney Angelo Massaro said at a regularly scheduled meeting.
Russ Petrozzi, one of two board members including Kevin Dobbs who were also part of the 2003 board roster, said Thursday it was district action that triggered the involvement of law enforcement. He declined to comment further.
“We went to the police,” Petrozzi said. “We placed him on administrative leave and then the police got involved.”
District Superintendent Mark Laurrie said Wednesday he respected, “the rights of those that feel that they were abused to follow the law.”
In 2003 and 2004, Laurrie was a “house principal” at Niagara Falls High School, one of the four administrators with authority over each NFHS tower. As such he was tasked with investigating Sims when the female who survived his abuse was a student at the high school, he said. Sims was still teaching at Gaskill at that time.
Laurrie said he turned over the results of his investigation to district administrators, who ordered Sims be removed from the school.
Laurrie said he was not the unnamed principal in the lawsuit and did not remember encountering any principal who was aware of Sim’s abuse when he investigated the matter. Skoney confirmed that Laurrie is not the individual referenced in the suit.
“I don’t recall ever knowing that a principal was aware of it,” Laurrie said.
Sims did not return a request for comment left on his home telephone’s voicemail on Wednesday.
Niagara Gazette Reporter Rick Pfeiffer contributed reporting.