Juneau principal placed on leave as district investigates allegations his former school ignored sex abuse

District officials learned of allegations this week, they say

Riverbend Elementary Principal Scott Nelson. (Courtesy photo)

Riverbend Elementary Principal Scott Nelson. (Courtesy photo)

The Juneau School District is investigating one of its principals after allegations arose about a teacher at his former school, JSD Chief of Staff Kristin Bartlett said.

Scott Nelson, principal of Riverbend Elementary School, is currently on administrative leave while the district examines recent lawsuits filed against the Matanuska-Susitna School District, Bartlett said in an email to the Empire.

Nelson had already announced his resignation from his position, Bartlett confirmed. A text message went out to Riverbend parents on Feb. 14 with Nelson citing “family reasons” for his resignation. Bartlett didn’t specify when that resignation takes effect.

The lawsuits — which were filed in Anchorage Superior Court on Feb. 19 — allege that a teacher and an unnamed administrator at Iditarod Elementary School in Wasilla didn’t take action when a mother who was concerned that a teacher, Lukis James Nighswonger, might be inappropriately touching her son. During the 2015-16 school year, according to the criminal complaint, the child told his mother that Nighswonger was touching his legs and making him feel “weird.”

Nelson, who is in his first year as principal of Riverbend, was principal at Iditarod at the time, Bartlett said. Nelson was not named in the lawsuit, nor has he been charged with anything.

“The lawsuits are related to incidents involving a teacher during the time that he was principal at his prior school,” Bartlett said in the email. “He has been placed on administrative leave while the Juneau School District gathers more information.”

Based on the complaint, it’s unclear whether or when the concerns were brought to Nelson’s attention.

The criminal complaint alleges that the other teacher at the school and the unnamed administrator both defended Nighswonger. The administrator “was dismissive” of the complaint, said it “had no basis in fact” and refused to move the boy to a different class away from Nighswonger, according to the complaint.

The teacher didn’t report the mother’s complaints to the principal, school officials or law enforcement officials, according to the complaint. It’s not known if the unnamed administrator confronted Nighswonger or if the administrator documented the mother’s complaint, the complaint alleges.

On Wednesday afternoon, Bartlett said, Juneau School District officials met with Riverbend staff and then notified parents of Riverbend students by phone of the situation. “Substitute principal support” has been arranged for the school for the time being, Bartlett said.

Angstman Law Office and the Law Office of Gregory S. Parvin filed the lawsuit on behalf of the boy’s family, according to the complaint.

Nighswonger taught at Iditarod Elementary from 2005-2018, and was placed on administrative leave when he admitted to school district officials that he touched an elementary-age child, according to the complaint. He later admitted to Alaska State Troopers that he was a pedophile and that he’d been attracted to children for as long as he could remember, the complaint alleges.

Nighswonger was arraigned in September 2018 and faces 19 charges including sexual abuse of a minor and sexual assault, according to electronic court records. He is scheduled to go to trial in April after the trial date has been pushed back twice.

An article in the Anchorage Daily News earlier this week brought the lawsuits to their attention, Bartlett said, as they had not previously heard about the allegations.

“The process for vetting all principal candidates includes background checks and reference checks, all of which were conducted during the hiring process for the Riverbend principal position in May of 2018,” Bartlett said in an email Friday. “The hiring process also included interviews in open session by a panel of representatives from school’s certificated staff and classified staff, district administration, parents and the Site Council.”

Riverbend Elementary School has about 300 students in preschool through fifth grade.

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or amccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

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