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Not just priests: Former students suing Ken-Ton over teacher sex abuse

It's not just priests being accused.

Since the Child Victims Act went into effect, dozens of lawsuits have been filed in Western New York against public school districts by former students who say teachers or other school staff sexually abused them as minors.

Joining those ranks are two women who attended Kenmore West High School in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District when they say they were abused by different teachers more than four decades ago.

Maggie Milanovich George, who graduated from high school in 1974, and Lorna Orleman Barrie, who graduated two years later, said they will file lawsuits Friday against the school district.

George said she was molested by teacher Joseph Sutton, who died with his wife last year in a murder-suicide. Barrie said she was sexually abused by her track coach, teacher Michael Indian.

They are not suing the teachers themselves, although the complaints identify their alleged abusers by name.

The women said the district should have done more to prevent the teachers from abusing them.

"I believe that the school district is not being upfront," George told The Buffalo News. "They're still covering up ... I want transparency. I want exposure. There are so many people who knew so much."

Maggie Milanovich George says physical education teacher Joseph Sutton molested her when she was a student at Kenmore West High School. (Courtesy of Maggie Milanovich George)

Both women said they did not report the alleged abuse while they were students. Experts in child abuse say it's common for victims to wait years if not decades before reporting it.

George and Barrie said they made attempts to alert the district about the alleged abuse in the 1990s, but nothing was done.

Barrie said she sent a handwritten letter to the district many years ago. She said she met with an administrator at her old high school – while Indian was still teaching there – but nothing happened after that. She also said she reached out to local newspapers, including The News.

“I never heard anything back from anybody,” she said.

George said she reported her situation to the Ken-Ton school district in 1998 after learning Sutton may have been involved with another student. She learned at the time that he had retired. She said the person she talked to at the district – she doesn’t know their name – said that an attorney would get back to her. “I never heard from anyone,” she said.

George wrote about her allegations in a "My View" article that appeared in The News in May 2018, titled "Predator stole years from my life."

Barrie read the article, thought George was referring to Indian and reached out to George. The women realized they were talking about two different teachers.

Barrie also went to Ken-Ton then to report her allegations.

The district then launched its own investigation, including hiring a private investigator, and filed what is called a "Part 83" complaint with the State Education Department which can revoke an educator's license. At the time, state education officials said it could take as long as two years to make a determination. They also encouraged the women to file reports with law enforcement.

The News published a story about the women's allegations in July 2018.

40 years later, scars of abuse at Ken-Ton remain for two women

30 lawsuits against Ken-Ton district

In January, after the Child Victims Act had languished for 13 years in the Republican-controlled State Senate, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed the bill. At the last minute, public schools were included among institutions that could be held liable under the legislation. It included a one-year window for adult survivors of child sex abuse to file civil suits previously barred by statutes of limitation. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed it into law on Feb. 14.

As of Thursday, 220 Child Victims Act lawsuits had been filed in five Western New York counties since Aug. 14, when the one-year window began. Of those, 166 name the Buffalo Diocese as a defendant. Thirty-nine are against public school districts, with 30 suits accusing retired Ken-Ton elementary school teacher Arthur Werner of sexual abuse. Other school districts sued include Buffalo, with three suits, and one suit apiece for Amherst, East Aurora, West Seneca, Niagara Falls, Portville and Salamanca.

"Since the law was signed in February, we have been hearing from survivors who were abused by teachers, counselors, coaches and others in their schools," said attorney Steve Boyd, whose law firm has teamed up with Jeff Anderson & Associates to represent 100 other clients in Child Victims Act cases, including Barrie and George. "Sadly, we have also learned that in some instances this was a part of a school culture. In particular with high schools, everybody knew it was happening."

“There was ‘look-the-other-way’ culture in these schools despite their legal obligation to report these predators and a moral obligation to protect these children,” said attorney Leah Costanzo, a partner in Boyd's firm. 

The attorneys said they plan to file Child Victims Act lawsuits against Amherst High School, Buffalo Public Schools, Maryvale East Elementary School, Mount St. Joseph Academy, Niagara Falls High School and Hamburg High School.

Also a second lawsuit against Indian, this one by an unnamed plaintiff, is slated to be filed Friday, Boyd said Friday morning.

On Thursday, Ken-Ton officials released a statement about George and Barrie's cases, saying the district "is aware of serious and concerning allegations regarding conduct by former members of the district staff at the time of their employment approximately 40 years ago."

It continued: "The district has been committed to taking any and all action within the scope of its authority to appropriately respond to the allegations and has been in communication with the appropriate state authorities regarding this matter. The Ken-Ton School District takes any allegations of misconduct by staff extremely seriously regardless of how much time may have passed or whether the employee is or is not currently employed by the district."

Maggie George's story

George told The Buffalo News that she was 14½ and a sophomore when a physical education teacher, Sutton, noticed her at a school dance. He was 27.

Maggie Milanovich George in an old photo from her high school years. (Courtesy of Maggie Milanovich George)

She said a few days later Sutton asked her to play one-on-one basketball, then drove her to the Buffalo Zoo parking lot where he repeatedly tried to kiss her.

“He was begging me to kiss him,” George said.

She said he continued to pay an unusual amount of attention to her and they often played tennis together. In the summer at the end of her junior year, when she was 16, she said Sutton coaxed her to jump into a pool one day with their clothes on. George said he touched her breasts and then he put her hand on him.

On the day of her high school graduation, George said the teacher found her after the ceremony and asked her to come meet him at his property five days later. She said she did and they had sex. She was no longer a student and was now 17, the legal age of consent.

She acknowledged that there were only a few physical encounters but she now believes the attention he lavished on her was inappropriate and manipulative.

Last year when he was reached by phone, Sutton denied knowing George and refused any other comment to The News.

On Sept. 28, 2018, Sutton and his wife died in a murder-suicide in Florida. Authorities said Sutton shot his wife multiple times before shooting himself at their winter home in Sun City Center. They had another home south of Buffalo, in Derby.

Lorna Barrie's story

Barrie said she was 16 when Indian, her track coach who was also a teacher, began having sexual contact with her.

“In my junior year, I pulled my hamstring muscle during training,” said Barrie, who graduated in 1976. “He would take me into a smaller room at the field house … and ‘massage’ my strained muscle,” she told The News.

The massages turned to fondling and kissing, she said. She said Indian also had her touch him.

The touching turned to intercourse. She said the sexual incidents continued through the summer and into her senior year when she was 17. She told The News Indian “assaulted me in his car, in his basement, in his home office and in his parents’ home and pool around the corner from where he lived.” She said there were several incidents on school property.

Michael Indian, a former Kenmore West High School teacher accused in a Child Victims Act lawsuit to be filed Sept. 26, 2019. (Courtesy of Lorna Barrie)

In emails to The News Thursday and last year he denied having "an affair" with Barrie while she was in high school, but did acknowledge that their "long-term relationship" started when she was on the track team. "There was nothing on the high school track team beyond some affectionate hugging at the end of the season," he said, and that their "full physical relationship" started after she left her first husband.

"I take responsibility for my behavior and I very humbly apologize for any and all offensive behavior. I was young, inexperienced and naive and did not always make the right choices and for that I am very sorry. At the same time, I made many more right choices and became and was a very good teacher and coach," he said.

"All of this happened over 40 years ago during the 1970s, a very socially turbulent era when closer personal contact was more acceptable," he wrote.

Indian said Barrie was raped in her dorm room while at college by someone else and then she came to him. Barrie denied that. "The only one that raped me is him [Indian]," she said.

Barrie acknowledged that their relationship continued as adults, but was adamant that the sexual contact began when she was just 16.

Barrie said coming forward publicly last year was difficult but that it's helped her feel more empowered. She hopes that helps other survivors of child sex abuse.

"All I wanted to ever do was make it so he couldn't victimize other girls. Honestly, I wanted people to know his name and what kind of monster he was," she said. "I hope people don't think badly of me because I spent 45 years thinking worse than they could possibly think of myself."

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