The families of three juvenile students on Sept. 22 brought a lawsuit against the Aztec school district and a former third grade teacher, accusing him of unlawfully taping them to their chairs and engaging in behavior described as “sexual grooming.”
The lawsuit was filed against former third grade teacher Jeremiah Whitaker, who was employed by Lydia Rippey Elementary School from 2018 to 2023. It alleges Whitaker singled out and “engaged in sexual grooming behavior directed at (three) female students.”
The lawsuit was brought by Amelia Aguilar, Tosha Quevedo, and Juan Delgado and Maria Gutierrez. It seeks damages “for the wanton, willful, reckless and malicious conduct of the Defendants,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit names school Principal Dana Stanley, Superintendent Kevin Summers and the Aztec Municipal School District Board of Education for failing to take action against Whitaker, who reportedly “was overly interested in the female students in his class,” according to court records.
The allegations stem from incidents that reportedly happened in the 2022-2023 school year.
It is alleged that Whitaker took a special interest in the three girls, who were named as victims in the suit. He gave them “special privilege … such as allowing them to come behind his desk and/or sit in his chair,” and often “created opportunities to be alone with them,” the lawsuit states.
Whitaker also reportedly gave the three girls “large bags of candy and drawings” that he made, the lawsuit states.
The attention continued, and then on the morning of Dec. 12, the suit alleges, Whitaker played a movie for the rest of the class, but called each of the three girls to his desk and one at a time put their “hand to his face and used his tongue to lick (the child’s) hand.”
Whitaker reportedly admitted the alleged abuse in a text message to the mother of one of the girls.
The three girls ran out of the classroom and went to the bathroom to wash their hands, but when they returned, Whitaker “instructed them to sit in their chairs and watch the movie,” the lawsuit states.
At 9:38 a.m. on Dec. 12, Whitaker texted the third grade team and asked for duct tape.
“Do any of you have duct tape I could borrow? I need duct tape,” the alleged text stated.
After Whitaker obtained duct tape, the lawsuit says, he “snuck up” up on the seated child and “wrapped the tape around” the child’s body and the chair, preventing the child from freeing herself.
He proceeded to wrap the other two girls in duct tape, allegedly taping each girl’s “body, face and chair,” the lawsuit states.
None of the three girls were able to free themselves and thus were “unlawfully confined … to their chairs against their will,” the lawsuit states.
“Defendant Whitaker refused to release the girls and discouraged other students from releasing them,” the lawsuit states. However, “classmates had to utilize scissors in order to cut the girls out of the tape.”
One of the children went home and told her parents what had happened. The parent, Juan Delgado, he took his child to school the next day and reported the incident to Principal Stanley, the lawsuit states.
Another parent, Quevedo, went to the school and found that Whitaker’s classroom had been moved to another area of the school. The child reportedly told her mother it was “because of what she and her friends had said about Defendant Whitaker,” and she disclosed the alleged abuse to her mother, the lawsuit states.
Quevedo also went to the principal, who is required by law to report the abuse to law enforcement or to Children, Youth, and Families Department. The lawsuit says the incident was not reported.
Quevedo reported the incident to the Aztec Police Department, and that is how the third parent, Amelia Aguilar, learned about the allegations. Police visited her home on Dec. 15 to collect a statement from her daughter, the lawsuit states.
Aztec Police learned of Whitaker’s actions and stated that he “admitted that he intentionally grabbed the hands of each of the girls and licked them,” and “that he intentionally taped the children to their chairs as well,” records state.
Whitaker was charged on Feb. 13 with three counts of battery in Aztec Municipal Court, and on May 17, he entered a no-contest plea in Aztec Municipal Court. While he did not admit his guilt, under a no-contest plea, the defendant admitted there was enough evidence to prosecute him should the case go to trial.
Whitaker was sentenced June 21 to 270 days of incarceration and a fine of $837. The judge suspended all but 10 days and ordered Whitaker to serve that in the San Juan County Detention Center, according to court records.
Further investigation led plaintiffs Shellie Patscheck, Thomas M. Clark and Doug Perrin to discover that in March 2022, the “New Mexico Public Education Department received a report that Defendant Whitaker was having inappropriate contact with female students,” the lawsuit states.
Principal Stanley investigated misconduct that same month after receiving reports that Whitaker reportedly “engaged in water fights with students in the classroom and had sprayed a female student with water,” the lawsuit states.
Stanley also stated that she had “concerns” about Whitaker allowing students to be in his classroom “alone with him, during lunch and recess,” according to the lawsuit.
Other teachers and a social worker also alleged that Walker apparently showed “grooming conduct with female students in 2021 and 2022,” yet the Aztec Municipal School District allowed him to continue teaching in the 2022-2023 school year.
It also was stated in the lawsuit that one week before the incidents involving the three students, Whitaker inquired about using the Family Medical Leave Act for mental health purposes. He reportedly disclosed to his superiors that he was “struggling with mental health and his doctors were working on adjusting his medication,” yet the school district allowed Whitaker to continue teaching.
Whitaker is no longer employed by the Aztec Municipal School District, and according to his social media pages, he has not worked for the schools since January 2023.
According to Whitaker’s work records, he was a deputy in the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office from June 2006 to December 2007 and was a police officer with Bloomfield Police Department from December 2007 to August 2015, before he became a schoolteacher.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit seek damages recoverable under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act, the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, and Title IX, including reasonable attorney fees and court costs. They also seek punitive damages, “for the wanton, willful, reckless, and malicious conduct of the defendants,” the lawsuit states.