Sugar-Salem settles Title IX case for $300,000

The Sugar-Salem School District, through its insurance company, paid $300,000 to a former student this June, settling a federal Title IX lawsuit where she alleged the district failed to protect her from a school counselor who groomed her for a sexual relationship.

Miriam Torres, formerly Miriam Sevy, filed the suit in 2017. She graduated from the Sugar Salem-School District in 2014, and alleges that from her sophomore to senior year, former school counselor Bryce Owen groomed her to have sex with him once she reached the age of 18.

Owen and Sugar-Salem spent years in court fighting Torres’ suit. Owen confirmed that he had sex with Torres after she turned 18, but claimed she filed the lawsuit too long after the encounter to sue him for negligence or assault and battery. The district argued it was not responsible for any negligence on Owens’ part, and because district officials weren’t aware of his conduct, was not in violation of Title IX, a federal law that protects students from discrimination based on sex, including sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Torres’ lawyers reached a confidential settlement with Owen this spring, but the Title IX case against Sugar-Salem was headed for a jury trial in late June. Parties agreed to a settlement only weeks before opening arguments.

“I’m happy that it’s over, but, I wish there was more accountability,” Torres told Idaho Education News in an interview this week. “I feel like this is the best outcome for me.”

Sugar-Salem superintendent Chester Bradshaw declined to comment on the case, which was initiated under his predecessor Alan Dunn. The district did not admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement agreement. Owen and his lawyers did not respond to messages seeking comment. 

Owen’s school counselor certificate was revoked by the State Department of Education’s Professional Standards Commission in 2016 for failing to maintain a “professional relationship with all students.” That was also his last year at the Sugar-Salem School District.

Torres was in her sophomore year at Sugar-Salem when she says Owen asked her to participate in counseling. She assumed that a friend of hers told Owen that she was self harming, court documents say. Though Torres was uncomfortable with the idea of counseling, she felt like she couldn’t refuse because of Owen’s “position of authority,” her lawyers say. 

In counseling, Torres says that Owen asked her about her sexual relationships extensively, and in graphic detail. When she disclosed that a 32-year-old man had engaged in a sexual relationship with her as a minor, Owen didn’t tell her that was sexual abuse or report it to the proper authorities, though her lawyers say he was a mandatory reporter under Idaho law. 

Torres’ mother discovered what she considered flirtatious texts between Owen and her daughter, and asked the district to prevent Owen from interacting with her children, Torres’ team says, but the conversations continued. 

Torres started to rely on Owen as a confidant and protector, her lawyers said, and she told Owen she was attracted to him. Owen told Torres he would not have sex with her until she was 18, the complaint says, “but did not explain why.” Owen continued to build a close relationship with Torres, pulling her out of class more frequently as she progressed through high school, her lawyers say, and telling her about his prior affairs. 

After Torres’ 18th birthday, court documents say, Owen had sex with Torres repeatedly at the school where he worked. She became withdrawn, depressed and suicidal, as a result of the relationship, her lawyers say.

Owen alleges in a deposition that he did not bring up sex with Torres until after she “propositioned” him. He admitted to having sex with her dozens of times during her senior year. 

As a student Torres, “believed her relationship was normal, and that he cared for her,” her lawyers wrote in court filings. It wasn’t until years after she graduated, and told her mom and therapists what happened, that Torres says she realized the encounters were abuse.

“(Torres) fully understood for the first time during therapy in the spring of 2016 that her relationship with Owen was not consensual, but the result of Owen’s inappropriate actions toward her so he could have sex with her,” her lawyers wrote in their complaint against the district. “Sugar-Salem had a duty to prevent and protect her from Owen’s actions.”

Torres reported to the Madison County Sheriff’s Office in 2015, police records show, but a local prosecutor declined to file any charges. 

Torres accused Owen 0f negligence, assault and battery, saying that he took advantage of her status as a minor, a patient and a student to coerce her into a sexual relationship. Their physical contact was “harmful and without consent,” because Owen had groomed her and was in a position of power over her as her high school counselor and medical practitioner. Her lawyers cite an Idaho law that says a medical provider — including a psychotherapist — is guilty of sexual exploitation if they “engage in sexual contact with a patient or client.”

Torres and her lawyers argue the district did not properly supervise Owen, despite prior concerns about his conduct, and “did nothing to investigate or stop Owen’s actions.” Lawyers write that the school lacked Title IX trainings and policies, and that Owen, as a counselor, was expected to report Title IX violations. 

The school district argued in a motion for summary judgement that it couldn’t be held responsible for Owen’s negligence, and didn’t violate Title IX requirements, because it was not aware of the sexual relationship between Owen and Torres until after she graduated.  A judge agreed that professional negligence on Owen’s part for sleeping with a client was not the district’s responsibility, but held that it would be up to a jury to decide if the district should have investigated and intervened under Title IX.

In his own motion for summary judgement, Owen argued primarily that Torres filed a suit too late to claim he was negligent or bring other claims against him. The judge refused to dismiss the claims based on that defense.

Owen’s lawyers, who did not respond to requests for comment, argue in legal documents that he “owned his behavior.”

“Mr. Owen resigned from his chosen profession, voluntarily surrendered both his teaching certificate and his counseling license, has been excommunicated from his church and has admitted his actions to his family, his faith and this proceeding,” his lawyers wrote. 

After leaving Sugar-Salem, Owen taught at the College of Eastern Idaho from 2016-2020 as an adjunct instructor in psychology and sociology, the college confirmed. A Bryce Owen also taught at BYU Idaho, a spokesman said, but is not currently employed at that school.

The $300,000 settlement closes Torres’s case, but she says it won’t be the end of her advocacy for sexual assault victims and Title IX protections in schools.

“I want to create grater change,” she said. 

She plans to put part of her settlement into a small business she started called Because of What Happened, where she sells decks of cards with positive affirmations for survivors of sexual assault and trauma, phrases that helped her feel empowered that she wants to share with others.

About Sami Edge

Reporter Sami Edge, a University of Oregon graduate, joined Idaho Education News in 2019. She is a 2019 Education Writers Association fellow reporting on Latino student outcomes in Idaho. She also is a 2019 American Press Institute fellow. She can be reached at [email protected].

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