Pa. school sued for punishing victim of secret sex video

Posted: October 21, 2012

A high school Spanish club's trip to Spain and Morocco over spring break was supposed to be a fantastic educational opportunity, but it became a nightmare for two Berks County students.

A junior in the Schuylkill Valley School District in Leesport says that on the final night of the 10-day journey, he and his girlfriend of two years had consensual sex in a hotel room in Casablanca. He was later mortified to learn that another student had surreptitiously videotaped them with a cellphone, then showed it to others.

When the student, his girlfriend, and their families informed district officials of the video - and asked for help dealing with the humiliating and bullying fallout - the high school suspended the pair for four days, contending they had violated school policy. The videographer was also suspended.

Anders Hemdal, 16, a sophomore at the time of the incident, filed a civil rights suit in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on Thursday. The suit alleges that administrators in the small school district trampled his rights, defamed him, violated his privacy, erroneously claimed he had engaged in "disorderly conduct," and disciplined him for an act not prohibited in the student code of conduct.

"The school handled this badly all the way through," Hemdal's attorney, Eric Winter, said.

He called Anders "one of their best and brightest," an A student and multisport athlete who had served on student council and performed in plays. He said the 16-year-old was asking the federal court to find that the district acted illegally by denying him his rights to a disciplinary hearing, and to order the school to erase from his record the four-day suspension he served in the spring.

A school district spokeswoman said Friday the superintendent could not comment because district officials had not seen the complaint.

Neither the 16-year-old young woman - who is no longer Anders' girlfriend - nor the videographer are named in the complaint. All three teens still attend Schuylkill Valley High School, which has 630 students.

According to the federal complaint, the videographer is facing charges in Berks County Juvenile Court for circulating the video he secretly made.

Stephanie and Niklas Hemdal said in a telephone interview Friday their son had made a victim-impact statement for the videographer's unscheduled hearing on child-pornography charges.

They do not know whether the video was posted on the Internet, but it was shown to other students.

"It was devastating for all of us," Stephanie Hemdal said. "We had many meetings with the girlfriend's family to talk about what we were going to do and how we would support our children through this. Our primary concern was their emotional health."

The two teens and their families, she said, have all been in counseling. And in the back of her mind, she worried about the kind of despair that caused Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi to kill himself in 2010 after his roommate used a webcam to record him kissing another man.

Stephanie Hemdal said that though she wished her son had shown better judgment than to have sex on a school trip with his girlfriend of two years, the couple had committed no crime. "They were in a hotel, in what they believed was a private setting," she said.

"This was an egregious invasion of privacy," Winter, the attorney, said.

 "It has been very tough emotionally dealing with the people in the community that view this more as a prank," said Niklas Hemdal, an information-technology executive and former Leesport mayor who served on the Schuylkill Valley school board for two years.

"Everyone trivializes it," he said. " 'It's a prank. Kids will be kids.' That is something that we deal with as parents."

Schuylkill Valley High School's Spanish Club often takes trips abroad, with parents paying the costs. This trip was authorized by the school board in January 2011.

Niklas Hemdal said the family spent more than $4,500 to send Anders to Europe and North Africa from March 30 to April 9. The itinerary included camel rides and a visit to the Sahara.

"We were hoping this would be a lifelong, wonderful experience," Stephanie Hemdal said.

A one-page sheet covering student behavior on the 2012 Spanish Club trip, which Anders Hemdal signed, said students would be sent home at their own expense if they were found to be engaging in inappropriate behavior, including drinking, using drugs, and "sexual activity." The high school's code of conduct bars students from having sex only at school, according to the lawsuit.

On the flight back to New York, the couple became aware of some pointing and laughter, but Anders did not learn about the video for several days. Another parent alerted the Hemdals to the video April 17, and Anders told his parents about it.

The family contacted school officials two days later to inform them of the secret video and to ask for help to stop the taunting and harassment that was so bad Anders no longer wanted to go to school.

The Hemdals also contacted local police, who investigated the circulation of the video.

The lawsuit alleges school officials notified other district employees about the video and mentioned Anders and his then-girlfriend by name.

On April 25, Anders' parents received a phone call informing them they were to meet in one hour with the principal and assistant principal at the high school. During the meeting, the administrators said Anders would be suspended for four days as punishment for a major offense.

Administrators said Superintendent Solomon Lausch, who has since retired, had determined the punishment and was treating Anders leniently "due to his cooperation with the police."

According to court documents, when the Hemdals met with Lausch the next day, he told them that his decision was final, that he did not have to justify it, and that they could hire an attorney if they did not agree with it.

And despite promises from high school officials that they would try to keep Anders apart from the videographer, that did not happen. The day Anders returned to school from his suspension, he was assigned to a makeup gym class with the other student.

Anders, who has been an avid soccer player, decided he could no longer be a member of the high school team this fall when he found the videographer at a preseason practice.

He told his father: " 'I cannot do this.' " He played on the golf team instead.

Niklas Hemdal said the family considered transferring Anders to another school, but feared the issue would follow him because the suspension would appear on records sent to another school.

The parents and their son face choices: "Do something and do nothing. And what lesson do you teach your children by doing nothing?"

"We decided not to run away from this," Stephanie Hemdal said. "We don't want this to happen to other kids."


Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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