A Wasilla teacher is charged with abusing students. Now their parents are suing the school district

Two lawsuits allege the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District failed to protect students from Iditarod Elementary teacher Lukis Nighswonger, who is charged with sexually abusing students. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media photo)

The families of three Wasilla children allege a teacher molested their kids and are now suing the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, accusing officials of negligence.

According to the two separate lawsuits, staff at Iditarod Elementary failed to protect students even after parents reported their kids’ teacher, Lukis Nighswonger, had touched the children inappropriately.

The lawsuits say a subsequent report of inappropriate touching, years later, triggered a criminal investigation of Nighswonger, now 36. According to a charging document, Nighswonger told troopers he had been attracted to children for as long as he could remember. He was arrested in September, and ultimately, a grand jury indicted Nighswonger on 19 felony counts of sexual abuse and sexual assault allegedly committed against a total of eight victims.

Nighswonger is a 2015 BP Teacher of Excellence. According to one of the lawsuits, Nighswonger’s reputation was on the mind of another teacher at the school, when parents of an alleged victim reported their eight-year-old son told them Nighswonger had touched him.

The teacher said their concerns were unfounded and “vouched for Nighswonger as a popular and much-loved teacher,” the lawsuit says. The suit alleges a school administrator at another meeting was also dismissive of the complaints and refused to move the boy to a different classroom.

Myron Angstman, an attorney for the boy and his parents, said Nighswonger was able to abuse other children long after those initial reports.

“That’s for sure. It was quite some time ago,” Angstman said. “What we understand is many of the charges grew out of activities that happened after our family went to the school.”

The school district should be held accountable, Angstman said, because teachers and school administrators have a duty to protect children in their care and are required to notify authorities of reports of child sexual abuse. Nighswonger’s position as a respected teacher allowed him to maintain his contact with children even after multiple reports of bad behavior, Angstman said.

“If you are an extremely popular teacher, with lots of friends and supporters within a school district, it’s very, very difficult for someone to lodge a complaint against you and have any success with that complaint,” Angstman said. “This teacher clearly portrayed an image of a guy who was among the best teachers around.”

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment for this story.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Nighswonger remained jailed and held on $1 million cash bail.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Casey here

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