Two recent St. Thomas Academy graduates are suing the all-male military Catholic school in Mendota Heights, alleging that they were subjected to groping and other inappropriate behavior during hazing incidents by other students.
The plaintiffs say their experience is one example of an alleged "frat-like" culture at the school. The lawsuits also allege that the school did not follow up properly after reports that senior students asked the plaintiff students sexual questions in award interviews.
Headmaster Kelby Woodard emailed the St. Thomas community Wednesday evening after inquiries from the Star Tribune regarding the lawsuits, saying the allegations are "unfounded and without merit."
The separate complaints filed by the families of 2022 graduates Joe Kolar and Tucker Bakko both allege abuse during an interview process for the Cadet of the Quarter award, conducted by senior students without adult supervision in November 2020 and January 2021.
According to the lawsuits, on separate occasions Kolar and Bakko were sitting in a conference room for the award interviews when a student hidden under the table grabbed their genitals and crotch area.
In Kolar's interview, the lawsuit alleges, students chewed up food and forced him to eat it by spitting it into his mouth. They also showed Kolar photoshopped images of him getting shot in the head, and of kissing a man, the complaint says.
In Bakko's interview, the student who grabbed his crotch allegedly sat on his lap with his arms around Bakko's neck for the rest of the interview.
The suits also allege faculty member Col. Neil Hetherington did not respond appropriately to other concerns of the plaintiffs, saying students asked inappropriate sexual questions in November 2021 while deciding who made the Top 20 student list in military class.
When Kolar tried to tell Hetherington about the interview where he was allegedly groped a year prior, the faculty member cut him off and said he did not care or want to hear about what happened in the past, the suit claims. Hetherington plans to retire at the end of the school year, Woodard said.
In discussing claims of overall school culture, the complaints allege unwanted touching such as butt slapping and crotch grabbing was "prevalent throughout the school day on a regular basis." They also allege racist, sexist and homophobic comments are made at the school regularly.
The suits were filed Jan. 25 in Dakota County District Court. The school filed motions soon after, requesting that the court dismiss both suits.
In an interview with the Star Tribune, Woodard stressed that the alleged conduct was among students and not staff. He also said the plaintiff families did not make the school aware of the alleged abuse until their sons were disciplined for something unrelated in November 2021.
"Had the alleged offense been reported on a timely basis, we would have acted swiftly to investigate, and if warranted, disciplined the offending students," Woodard said. "We take seriously all of these allegations, of course, and do not condone behavior that has the potential to harm anyone physically or emotionally."
After learning of the allegations, the Board of Trustees conducted an investigation, which included reviewing the culture of St. Thomas, Woodard said. In confidential interviews with the families of the two boys, Woodard alleges, they chose not to divulge certain details such as who the responsible students were.
"Unfortunately these families chose to not provide those details — they were interviewed but didn't provide the details, saying it didn't matter because those students already graduated," he said.
Joni Thome, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the families felt "stonewalled" by the school's response to their allegations, and that the students will always carry the emotional harm from their experiences because of it.
"These students have had experiences that took place during important years of our lives. High school is hopefully a time most people look back on with reminiscent joy," Thome said. "These kids are coming away with having been through some humiliation, and just general disappointment with not being heard or being respected about the things they had to report."
The lawsuit also alleges that from freshman year other students discourage "snitching" if someone is made fun of and are instead encouraged to speak peer-to-peer.
The school's investigation found insufficient evidence to validate the claims against the school, Woodard wrote in his email, and the school did not find substantive or systemic deficiencies in the character development program. Some recommendations for improvement did come out of the investigation and were implemented, the email states.
Star Tribune staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.