By Megan Gannon
Published: November 03, 2023
Two people identified as Jane Doe and John Doe filed a civil lawsuit against the Bering Strait School District alleging that they were repeatedly abused by an ex-Stebbins teacher. The lawsuit claims the district violated its policies, was negligent in its hiring practices and failed to respond to student complaints about the teacher.
That teacher, Lon Gillas, was sentenced to two years in federal prison in 2022. He had been arrested in 2020 on charges of attempted production of child sexual abuse material and enticing a minor. At that time, he had been working with middle and high school students at the Tukurngailnguq School for about nine years.
Those criminal charges did not involve Gillas’ students in Stebbins. But the civil lawsuit, which was filed on May 31 in the Second Judicial District at Nome, puts forth new claims that Gillas “repeatedly abused” multiple students in Stebbins.
“The facts in the complaint show that the school district hired a known pedophile, ignored repeated reports that he was abusing students, and then after he was finally arrested the school district made false statements in the press about what it knew,” said Reilly Cosgrove, the lawyer for the plaintiffs. “The school district caused a predator to abuse students for 10 years and we are going to hold them accountable.”
BSSD Superintendent Susan Nedza told the Nugget that the “district takes all claims seriously but will not be commenting while the legal matter is pending.”
According to the federal court’s sentencing memo from 2022, the FBI had started investigating Gillas when a 20-year-old woman reported that she experienced sexual violence while living with him in a “contractual master/slave relationship” in Stebbins.
The FBI then found that Gillas was using his BSSD email to engage in sexually explicit messages with someone he thought was a 16-year-old girl living out of state. (His messaging partner turned out to be a man unaffiliated with law enforcement.)
In the messages, Gillas repeatedly asked the “girl” to send him sexually explicit images and sought to have her sent to Stebbins.
Gillas, before moving to Alaska, had lost his Oregon teaching license after using his school computer to access pornography, and that on some occasions, this was witnessed by students.
The plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit say they were repeatedly abused by Gillas at the Tukurngailnguq School in Stebbins and “suffered personal physical injury along with psychological trauma.”
Jane Doe additionally claims Gillas took photos of her and that she reported the abuse to BSSD.
The lawsuit alleges that Gillas abused other students, too—having sexual conversations with them, molesting them and making sexual gestures, among other inappropriate behavior.
The lawsuit claims that the district ignored the complaints of students during Gillas’s employment. Former Superintendent Bobby Bolen had given interviews to Alaska Public Media and the Anchorage Daily News in 2020 saying that the district has no knowledge of any inappropriate behavior or issues with Gillas prior to his arrest.
In an answer to the complaint, filed in August 2023, BSSD either denied these allegations or, in some cases, said it does not have enough information to admit or deny the allegations. The district also asked the court to dismiss the claims that would allow the plaintiffs to seek damages.
Gillas has not been charged over any alleged crimes against students in Stebbins.
BSSD is represented by the firm Patterson, Buchanan, Fobes & Leitch. An attorney for the firm, Don Austin, told the Nugget that the discovery phase of the case has yet to take place. During that stage, both sides will provide evidence for their case.
“If we find out facts that look like something criminal happened, under mandatary reporting laws, we’d be reporting to law enforcement,” Austin said.
Nome District Attorney John Earthman also said that his office would look into criminal referrals from whatever source, including civil proceedings.
“We are the prosecuting agency, and the investigating agency would most likely be AST,” Earthman said in an email. “We would accept information about potential crimes and then refer it to AST for investigation. Once AST conducts an investigation, they submit to us their results, which we review and then make a charging decision. Anyone can report a crime to us and we will make sure it gets to the right agency.”
It’s unclear how much money in damages John Doe and Jane Doe ultimately may seek through the lawsuit, but the complaint put that amount “in excess of $100,000.” According to court records, a jury trial has been scheduled for November 2024. The case will not go to trial if a settlement is reached before then.
In 2019, BSSD agreed to pay a $12.6 million settlement in a sex abuse case involving Wales instructor Amos Oxereok. Under that agreement, most of that money was to go to 13 of the girls who were abused by Oxereok.