It was so bad for some girls at Perry Upper Elementary School in Perry, Oklahoma, that they would cry together in the bathroom and hide evidence of those tears with makeup before returning to class.
Those girls were some of the 15 preteens allegedly molested by 86-year-old teacher’s aide Arnold Cowen, who school officials knew was potentially abusing young students throughout the 2016-2017 school year but did nothing about it, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday against Perry Public Schools and the Board of Education.
Cowen was a teacher’s assistant in multiple classes, including a math class taught by Jeffery Sullins, who was later arrested for allegedly covering up the abuse. That teacher taught multiple girls who allege that Cowen groped their private parts and made sexual comments.
But when the students tried to report Cowen’s actions, nothing was done, according to the lawsuit. One student reported the alleged abuse to a teacher named Tammy Readus, who the lawsuit says did not alert police but rather sent the student to the principal’s office.
Kendra Miller, the principal, didn’t tell the police either — instead advising one girl to simply “fist bump” Cowen instead of hugging him, the lawsuit alleges. When two other girls came to Miller with similar complaints, the principal gave the same suggestion about giving Cowen a “fist bump.”
Miller also told one student it was likely “just an accident” that Cowen touched her body, the lawsuit says, while also warning another student that she could “get people in trouble” if she told someone else about the abuse.
That all happened before the 2016 Christmas break, the lawsuit says.
The following month, Sullins allegedly tried to intimidate students from telling more people about Cowen’s series of abuse. According to the lawsuit, the teacher grabbed a note one student was passing to another in class that read “Mr. Cowen grab [sic] my boob then I made this face [drawing of ‘awkward’ emoticon,] and he said it was nice there.”
Sullins then allegedly confronted the student in a hallway outside of the classroom, telling her that he “believed none of it,” the lawsuit alleges. That girl then returned to class to work with Cowen on a math assignment.
But by late January, police began to investigate reports of abuse at the school. Officers interviewed Miller, who defended the teacher’s aide as someone who had “great moral character and was a very nice guy,” the lawsuit reads.
“We had these allegations on Arnold Cowen before, but we determined they were fabricated by the students,” Miller told officers, according to the lawsuit, which also alleges that then-Superintendent Scott Chenoweth wrote about the accusations in a text message but “failed to take any corrective action.”
The full breadth of the alleged sexual abuse was soon uncovered by police, and Cowen was later arrested and charged with 21 counts of child molestation and another for child pornography. In March, Sullins and Miller were arrested and later resigned from their jobs, while Chenoweth later resigned, according to KFOR.
Now the families of those abused girls hope they make sure something like this never happens again.
"The Perry Board of Education has failed its community and its taxpayers,” Cameron Spradling, attorney for the 15 girls, told KOCO. "This federal lawsuit will reveal the secrets of Perry, Oklahoma. It is time that sexual assault victims be taken seriously, especially our children."