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Woman files lawsuit against Cheyenne school district over handling of student-teacher relationship

CHEYENNE – Laramie County School District 1 is being sued for its handling of a sexual relationship between a student and a teacher.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on March 31 against the district by the sexual assault survivor. The former student was in the class of a former math teacher, Joseph Meza, at Johnson Junior High School in Cheyenne.

Meza pleaded guilty to one count of sexual abuse of a minor in 2018 for having sex with a student, an adoptive teenage daughter, when he was in his 30s, according to previous reporting. He was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison for first-degree sexual abuse of a minor in January 2019.

The former student is suing the district for allegedly violating the 1972 Educational Amendments, Title IX, Violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and Violation of Due Process under the 14th Amendment. She is demanding a jury trial, and is asking for compensatory and punitive damages, attorney fees and cost of action, and other relief deemed appropriate by the jury.

The Wyoming Tribune Eagle doesn’t identify the victims of sexual assault, and because this civil lawsuit pertains to the former student’s sexual assault, she will not be identified. She is being represented by attorneys in the Park Street Law Office in Casper.

According to court documents:

In May 2012, Meza applied for a job as a seventh-grade math teacher at Johnson Junior High School. At the time of application, one of his references said he works well with kids, but tended to be “too close to students.”

This allegation was never followed up on, and he was hired as a teacher.

In the fall of 2013, at a school football game, Principal John Cunningham saw Meza sitting with a “number of seventh-grade girls,” with one of the girls sitting with her arm around him, and touching his face and neck, according to the lawsuit.

Cunningham told Meza that the behavior was inappropriate, and put a note in Meza’s personnel file about the incident.

In 2013, the girl was placed in Meza’s seventh grade math class; she was 13 years old at the time. Meza also learned that the girl had previously been sexually assaulted.

He then called the girl’s cellphone from another student’s cellphone. He also asked the victim’s mother to tutor the girl after school and on the weekends, which is prohibited by the Wyoming Professional Conduct Guide.

Meza then began texting the girl “at all times of the day and night,” which is also prohibited conduct under the guide.

In the spring of 2014, Meza had the girl in his classroom before school two to three times per week, she ate lunch every day in his classroom, he closed his classroom door when she was in it for “privacy,” he drove her home from school, and she began skipping classes to spend more time with Meza.

In May 2014, Meza asked the girl to take their friendship to the “next level” and begin dating. This conversation occurred in Meza’s classroom during school hours.

She told Meza she needed time to think about it, and Meza acted offended, which frightened her. The next morning, the girl agreed to be in a relationship with Meza.

The relationship progressed to include hugging, sexual stimulation, sexual intercourse and other physical touching that occurred on school grounds, including Johnson Junior High School and South High School.

She was 14 years old.

During the 2014-15 school year, she began to spend nights at his house. The sexual abuse continued through 2017.

Johnson Junior High principals observed the girl in Meza’s classroom alone numerous times, even after she was no longer a student at the school. Other school employees also commented on the amount of time she was in his classroom and with him, according to the lawsuit.

School employees Christina Hunter and John Balow had to speak with Meza about once a month regarding these issues. This matter wasn’t investigated further at the time, but after Meza’s arrest, Hunter went back and documented these conversations and put them in Meza’s personnel file.

Hunter specifically singled out the amount of time Meza was spending with the girl, about touching students, being in the same room as students with the door closed, not sitting too closely to students and being in students’ personal space.

Other school employees told Meza “you know what this looks like, right?” And other students began to comment on the behavior between Meza and the girl, and report the behavior to the school. Other employees also began to report this behavior.

Meza was never disciplined for this behavior, according to the lawsuit.

In May 2016, Meza adopted the girl after she had been living with him for seven months. Meza asked the school district about the adoption, and the school district never notified the girl’s parents.

In May 2017, the girl reported the sexual assaults to the Cheyenne Police Department, and Meza was later arrested and found guilty of sexual assault.

Throughout this time, Laramie County School District 1 never offered any support to the girl, investigated Meza’s conduct or reported the sexual assault to the Office of Civil Rights, according to the lawsuit.