Former EP student sues over sexual grooming

EAST PALESTINE — A former East Palestine student has filed a civil suit in county Common Pleas Court against the school district, former superintendent Traci Hostetler and then high school principal Chris Neifer as well as the former teacher she claims tried to sexually groom her.

Hostetler left the district in July of 2018 after accepting a job with the Mahoning County Educational Service Center, and Neifer was promoted by the board of education to fill the role of superintendent, which is his current position with the district.

Samantha Mullen, now 20 years old, filed the lawsuit last week against the district and Hostetler and Neifer as individuals, and also in their roles as superintendent and principal.

The suit was also filed against Trey McKim of Ellwood City, Pa., who was a teacher and assistant football and baseball coach from 2013 through 2016, which is when Mullen was a student at the high school and under the age of 18.

The suit alleges McKim tried to sexually groom her, and accuses him of gross sexual imposition, imposition, importuning and voyeurism, among other things. It also states that McKim asked her to engage in sexting with him.

Mullen claims in the suit that the district, Hostetler and Neifer were “negligent and/or reckless” in supervising McKim and allowing her to leave her study hall to be alone and unsupervised in McKim’s classroom, which “enabled him to victimize” her, and then failed to take appropriate action after learning of the allegations.

She also claims that numerous faculty and staff knew of McKim’s grooming and even suspected inappropriate behavior but never did anything to intervene and/or never informed the authorities.

The suit goes on to state that in March of 2016 Hostetler was informed by East Palestine police that her parents filed a report regarding McKim, and that after being informed Hostetler held a “closed-door interrogation” with Mullen and an “unknown attorney” without a parent or guardian present and asked questions that were inappropriate or sexual in nature.

She is seeking in excess of $25,000 in compensatory damages, punitive damages to be determined at trial and attorneys fees.

The newspaper requested access to McKim’s personnel file at the school board offices this week and also obtained all of the police reports on file related to the case, which was initiated in March of 2016 when Mullen’s parents made the initial complaint.

According to documents contained in McKim’s personnel file, Hostetler reported the case to the state board of education in 2016 for a state investigation. Hostetler also informed McKim in a letter dated April 30, 2016 that he would be relieved of his duties as teacher and coach, with pay, pending the outcome of the investigation into the allegations that he shared inappropriate pictures and/or messages with a student.

The police department investigation included search warrants of Mullen and McKim’s cell phones, which were sent away to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. The county Children Services agency was also notified and launched its own investigation and the matter was also forwarded to the county prosecutor’s office for investigation.

Mullen’s parents decided to remove her from the district in April of 2016 during the investigation, according to the reports.

The investigations were able to confirm that chats and phone messages were exchanged between Mullen and McKim, but were not able to determine the content of those exchanges.

Police also interviewed several witnesses, who stated they believed they saw Mullen and McKim together in vehicles around town, although they were not entirely certain it was McKim. The department also interviewed some district staff, who said they had heard rumors of inappropriate behavior but did not have any evidence.

Other documents obtained in McKim’s personnel file with the district show that McKim sent the school district a letter on Dec. 27, 2016 requesting an unpaid leave of absence, effective Dec. 31 and to continue until the conclusion of the criminal investigation by law enforcement and Ohio Department of Education for the allegations of unprofessional or inappropriate conduct.

On Jan. 25 of 2017 McKim notified the district that he was resigning for “personal reasons,” effective immediately.

On March 1, 2017, the county prosecutor’s office notified the police department that charges against McKim would not be filed.

On June 13, 2017, the state notified the district that its investigation into the allegations that he may have engaged in conduct unbecoming to the teaching profession was complete and that it had entered into a consent agreement with McKim.

The state’s disciplinary action against McKim outlined in the consent agreement included the suspension of McKim’s four-year resident educator license upon its expiration, which was June 30, 2017, and that he is not to reapply for any license, permit or certificate with the Ohio Department of Education.