Shawnee Mission refused to remove Lichtenegger from SM East despite request from victim’s family

Jay Senter - April 16, 2015 8:00 am
Despite an agreement designed to keep the students from seeing each other, Kessler Lichtenegger used this SM East entrance that had been designated for use by his victim, causing her to encounter him before school.
Despite an agreement designed to keep the students from seeing each other, Kessler Lichtenegger used this SM East entrance even after it had been designated for use by his victim, part of a series of events that eventually led her to leave the school.

By Jay Senter and Dan Blom

(The names of members of the “Jensen” family have been changed to protect the identity of a survivor of sexual assault)

Like many victims of sexual assault, SM East student Anastasia Jensen faced a long, steep road to recovery after her attack at the hands of Kessler Lichtenegger in September 2011. But as she emerged from a deep depression that followed the attack, her family had high hopes she would be able to return to a normal life as an SM East student.

Instead, the Jensens’ attempts to get Anastasia reacclimated to the high school that’s just blocks from her house turned into a drawn out nightmare that found Anastasia forced to cross paths with her attacker time and again.

Despite the fact that school officials knew about Lichtenegger’s pleading guilty to charges of battery and lewd and lascivious behavior after the attack — and the fact that the courts had imposed a no contact order — the teen was permitted to continue attending classes with little regulation. Close encounters with Lichtenegger prompted bouts of depression and anxiety that ultimately forced Anastasia from the school.

Her assailant, on the other hand, spent nearly all of the next four school years at SM East.

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After the assault, Anastasia, a student with learning disabilities and special needs, spent much of the school year either getting institutional help or being tutored individually at another district location. But by May 2012, emails between the Jensens and school officials show, she was being gently reintroduced to the SM East environment in preparation to full-time return to the school in August.

At a meeting with school officials that spring, Tom Jensen says, his family requested that Lichtenegger be moved to a different school. The school officials took the request to the district level and returned with news that it has been refused, according to Tom. Tom says the district told the family that because the attack didn’t happen on school property, they didn’t feel they could get involved.

“They said he had a right to a free and unencumbered education like anyone else and they couldn’t force him to move,” Jensen said.

Jensen argued that his daughter, the victim of an assault, should have every bit as much of a right to that “free and unencumbered education” as her assailant — and his continued presence at SM East presented a huge challenge for her to move past the attack.

“If the court issues a no contact order [against a student guilty of attacking a classmate], why can’t you move him to Horizons?” Jensen said. “The district took a hell of a risk.”

While the school district won’t discuss individual students or incidents, its Director of Safety and Security John Douglass said Wednesday that all students have a right to a public education. However, he noted that the district always has the ability to move students. Douglass, who joined the district last year after retiring as Overland Park’s Police Chief, said no broad-based policy exists for moving a student to another school, and that such decisions are considered on a case-by-case basis.

In Lichtenegger’s case, the district decided to allow him to remain a SM East student until less than two weeks ago, when he was jailed on new charges of rape and sex with a minor. Those charges stem from incidents that allegedly occurred in the summer of 2014. The district confirmed Lichtenegger was no longer a Shawnee Mission student as of April 3, 2015, but would not comment on when district administrators learned of the latest charges against him.

The Jensens want to know what it would take to get a student like Lichtenegger transferred out of an environment like SM East.

“They need to be asked to explain in these kinds of situations what they can do and what they can’t and why,” he said.

The results of Lichtenegger remaining at SM East as Anastasia tried to return were an “unmitigated disaster,” Tom said.

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Julie Donelon, President and CEO of the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA), said a sense of safety and security is crucial to victims’ ability to recover.

“Following a sexual assault, survivors feel isolated and their sense of safety is shattered,” she said. “It is important that we…create a strong social support system to help them recover from the crime and avoid revictimizing the survivor.”

The Jensens say Anastasia couldn’t find that sense of safety at SM East.

As Anastasia prepared to return to the school in the fall of 2012, the Jensens’ attorney sent a letter to the school advising administrators that “Mr. Lichtenegger has been convicted of crimes against [Anastasia] and he is under a Court order to have no contact with [Anastasia].” The attorney said it was his understanding the school had “no formal protocols” for situations regarding adjudicated offenders or no contact orders, but he asked for the district to be responsible for helping enforce the order.

However, it didn’t take long before the problems of having Anastasia and Lichtenegger both at SM East began to present themselves. School officials had worked with parents of both students to arrange drop off locations that would prevent them from running into each other. But by September 2012, emails show, Lichtenegger was using the same entrance to the school — the circle drive on Mission Road — that Anastasia had been designated to use. The school intervened by asking his parents to have him change entrances.

Emails between the Jensens and SM East administrators document that on Nov. 8, 2012, Lichtenegger — accompanied by a teacher and other students — inadvertently walked into a classroom where Anastasia was sitting. She became extremely upset and fled the room. That incident was a contributing factor to Anastasia’s declining mental state, which required that she be institutionalized in late 2012. She spent that Christmas in a psychiatric facility instead of at home. Though the family made another attempt to have Anastasia return to SM East, ultimately they didn’t feel they had the support from the school they needed for Anastasia to feel safe.

In 2013, the Jensens decided to pull Anastasia from Shawnee Mission and enroll her at a private school — a decision that came with a huge financial obligation. Anastasia will graduate from the private school this year, but her father can’t help but wonder what might have happened to a student in Anastasia’s situation whose family didn’t have the means to educate her elsewhere.

“We were able to handle it, financially,” Tom said. “I don’t know what would have happened otherwise.”

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The district points out that making decisions about how to handle students convicted of crimes — especially against other students — is a delicate matter.

Douglass noted that the district is not technically responsible for enforcing no contact orders. The order is enforced by the court, he says, and is issued against the individual, not the school. The school will attempt to keep the students separated by managing schedules and making other accommodations, “but it is not our responsibility,” he said.

Though moving a student like Lichtenegger might seem like the obvious choice, his presence at another facility would provoke concerns there as well.

“[A parent might ask,] ‘If they are such a danger to that school, why is he coming to this school?” Douglass said. “Every single law enforcement decision is a balancing act.”

Such reasoning isn’t easy for parents of victims to stomach, however.

And the Jensens aren’t the only family to have had a hard time getting school officials to help a child avoid contact with a stalker or assailant.

In the mid-2000s, Christi Clare’s daughter started having trouble with a Mission Valley Middle School classmate who was giving her unwanted attention. Eventually, the boy, Derrick Blackshire, followed her into the girls bathroom, prompting Clare to ask school administrators if she could connect them with his parents to discuss the matter. School officials refused, saying they couldn’t release Blackshire’s family’s contact information, according to Clare.

Clare then went to the Johnson County District Attorney’s office where she successfully applied for a protection order that provided the legal authority to keep Blackshire away from her daughter.

However, Clare said, school officials seemed to have little interest in helping enforce the order. During their freshman year at SM East, Clare’s daughter and Blackshire were even assigned to the same math class. The district told Clare that they couldn’t prevent Blackshire from receiving an education, just like every other student, she said.

“I finally talked them into making sure she was in the corner seat closest to the door and he was in the furthest corner in the back, just to give her that extra few seconds to get out of the room ahead of him,” she said.

Later that year, Clare said, Blackshire provoked a physical confrontation with Clare’s daughter during lunch period and was temporarily suspended. A separate incident with another individual eventually led to his departure from SM East, Clare said.

A few years later, in 2009, Blackshire pleaded guilty to aggravated indecent liberties with a child under 14 — a reduction from an original charge of rape — and was sentenced to 10 years and 10 months in prison. Clare said she knew that she and her daughter were dealing with a dangerous individual years earlier. But they couldn’t seem to get school officials to take the matter seriously.

“I felt like I had to be the one to put [the school officials] on notice — that, hey, you don’t want to mess with me and my daughter,” she said. “It got to the point where everyone in the office knew who I was when I walked in the door. That’s the kind of parent I had to become. I didn’t want to have to be like that.”

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Today, SM East students attended a school assembly with speakers from MOCSA. A letter from Principal John McKinney says the topics would include sexual harassment, bystander engagement, consent and relationships, and dating violence.

“While sometimes difficult to discuss, these are relevant, far-reaching topics about which our students and our community have asked for more information. We are committed to seeking out and providing knowledge important to the safety and well-being of our students,” the letter states.

A district spokesperson said the schools often work with MOCSA and that the timing of the assembly is coincidence, coming two weeks after the rape charges were announced against Lichtenegger. Students said no mention was made of the Lichtenegger case during the assembly and they were told it was held because April is sexual assault awareness month.

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