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The Washington Township school board approved a $245,000 settlement for a federal lawsuit involving alleged sexual harassment and predatory behavior by a staff member at North Central High School in a meeting on Wednesday. The district also announced former Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White as the school’s interim principal.
White will lead the district’s only high school, which was also the subject of the lawsuit that families filed against the district last May. The district will continue its search for a permanent principal.
Principal Evans Branigan III had announced his upcoming retirement earlier this school year. But he was placed on a leave of absence in the past week following allegations involving verbal misconduct and a failure to implement district protocols regarding a student discipline matter, the district said this week in a message to families. The district did not provide more information on the matter, citing an ongoing investigation.
“We understand that during a process such as this, staff and families may feel in the dark, but please know that we are following proper procedures and protocols to protect the integrity of the investigative process,” the district said in the message sent to families on Monday. “Although perhaps frustrating, we must honor the investigative process and adhere to legal requirements.”
Branigan could not be reached for comment.
The administrative change follows a challenging couple of years for North Central.
In September 2021, one student was arrested after allegedly stabbing another with a knife in a fight that stemmed from tensions on Instagram, according to court documents.
Eight months later, four North Central students sued the district in federal court. The filing alleged that a “key feature” of how former theater director Nathan Shewell “ran his theater programs involved grooming his female students for sexual abuse.”
In a settlement approved Wednesday, the district will pay $245,000 to the four plaintiffs in individual payments ranging from $20,250 to $87,000. In exchange, the plaintiffs agree to drop all claims against the district. The plaintiffs also agree not to disclose the terms of the agreement and not to publicly disparage the district.
A district spokesperson said officials would not comment on the settlement agreement. The agreement states that the district continues to deny any liability toward the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit said the four theater students “left North Central broken” and described the alleged sexual harassment and psychological abuse they experienced.
“Shewell preyed on these young women, grooming them from age fourteen to become sexual partners,” the complaint stated.
The lawsuit claims Shewell would reenact students’ trauma through what he called an acting technique. Shewell, whose employment with the district was terminated in 2020, took two of the student plaintiffs into a closet to simulate a past sexual assault through this routine, the complaint alleges.
An attorney for Shewell, James Austin Anderson, declined to comment on the lawsuit or the settlement.
The lawsuit also alleges that Branigan and other school officials knew about Shewell’s alleged misconduct with female students and did “absolutely nothing” to prevent Shewell from continuing to abuse the female students.
When the parents of one anonymous student, named as Jane Doe 1 in the lawsuit, met with Branigan to discuss Shewell’s inappropriate relationship with female students, Branigan did not offer any resources or assurance that North Central would take steps to ensure the safety of students, the lawsuit claims.
Instead, the principal “told Jane Doe 1’s parents that the one thing he knew at North Central was to ‘leave the theater program alone,’” the complaint states.
Jeff Gibson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, declined to comment on the settlement.
In the letter to families sent earlier this week, the district said the search for a permanent principal began in December and will continue through April.
White will begin leading the school on Thursday to provide “optimal leadership support,” Superintendent Nikki Woodson said at the meeting.
White previously served as the superintendent of Washington Township schools and as the North Central High School principal.
The district said in its message to families that community members gave feedback on a survey for the new principal search and are participating in four rounds of interviews.
Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.