A federal lawsuit claims that the Omaha Public Schools ignored signs that a middle school teacher had crossed the line from friendly teacher to someone worthy of suspicion.

Closed-door lunches with a female student. Hugs. Whispers among students and teachers at Alfonza W. Davis Middle School that the seventh-grade math teacher was too close to the student.

The lawsuit, filed last week, lays out those allegations and accuses school officials of failing to follow up on red flags that suggested Brian Robeson was grooming and sexually assaulting a student.

“Observations, suspicions and strong circumstantial evidence were reported by faculty members who ‘saw something and said something,’ ” the lawsuit states. “The school and its administrator(s) did nothing.”

Robeson, OPS and Davis administrators, including Principal Dan Bartels, are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

OPS spokeswoman Monique Farmer said the district can’t comment on pending litigation. Bartels also declined to comment. An attorney who had previously represented Robeson did not immediately comment.

Robeson, 37, is serving a 40-year prison sentence at the Nebraska State Penitentiary after pleading guilty to first-degree sexual assault. Over the course of more than a year, authorities say, he was involved in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a former student, with the assaults starting when she was 13 and a student in his homeroom classroom.

Robeson had taught in OPS for 13 years. He was fired shortly after his arrest in December 2015.

The parents of the victim filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court. They are seeking undetermined damages for emotional distress, the girl’s ongoing mental health struggles and medical treatment for physical and emotional injuries. Her right to attend school in an environment free of harassment, under the federal Title IX law, was violated, the suit says.

The lawsuit alleges that OPS, Bartels and other unnamed administrators failed to protect the student and investigate concerns that Robeson was crossing boundaries.

“He raped (the girl). He grabbed her. He fondled her. He lied to her. He claimed his actions were God’s will. He promised to marry her in a church ceremony that he elaborately described to beguile (the girl). And he did so at school and elsewhere,” the lawsuit states.

Someone, according to the lawsuit, should have intervened.

Robeson was the girl’s homeroom teacher and manipulated her into starting a sexual relationship that occurred on and off school grounds and inside Robeson’s classroom, the lawsuit says. The school is near 130th and State Streets.

It alleges that Bartels was informed by staff and students at Davis that Robeson often spent lunch periods alone with the victim in his classroom, with the lights out and doors locked. The girl was sometimes late for after-school activities because Robeson was “mentoring” her, even though he wasn’t involved with any formal mentoring program.

Robeson was seen touching, hugging and picking up the girl, and the lawsuit states that Bartels was aware that Robeson drove her to and from school in his car on multiple occasions. Robeson and the girl left the building for “rendezvous” during the school day, the lawsuit says. Sometimes he left during the school day on days she was absent, and sometimes she left “concurrently” with him, it states.

In her second year at the school, Robeson had her placed in his classroom again.

“Despite knowing these things, being confronted by faculty members, and told by students of Robeson’s improper interest in, influence upon, actions involving and conduct toward (the girl) ... Bartels chose to protect Robeson and take no action,” the lawsuit says.

David Domina, one of the attorneys who filed the suit, said he would not comment on what evidence there is showing that Bartels or other staff disregarded any warnings. The lawsuit alludes to written and verbal reports of Robeson’s inappropriate behavior.

“We’ll let the evidence unfold as the case unfolds,” he said.

The lawsuit does not say how long talk had circulated about Robeson’s interactions with the student.

OPS changed its abuse reporting procedures in 2012 amid complaints that the district sat on allegations made by several female students against former Nathan Hale Middle School teacher Shad Knutson. Knutson is serving a prison sentence of nine to 14 years after being convicted of two abuse charges related to a months-long illicit relationship he instigated with a former middle school student.

In accordance with state law, OPS staff must now notify law enforcement officials within 24 hours of a sexual misconduct allegation by a student. New hires receive intensive training on sexual misconduct, and that training is reviewed on a yearly basis at schools.

The lawsuit states that Robeson persuaded the girl to remain silent about the abuse. He was arrested in 2015 after being caught inside the family home of the girl watching TV while the family was out of town.

Shortly after Robeson’s arrest, OPS’s chief human resources officer, Charles Wakefield, said the district didn’t think the allegations originated with OPS staff, and at that point, there was no evidence that the alleged abuse occurred on Davis school grounds.

The lawsuit states that OPS also was negligent in hiring and retaining Robeson. He was hired despite having two DUI convictions and was convicted of a third DUI in 2010 while employed by the district.

For the third offense, he was sentenced to 24 months of probation and 30 days in jail — which he served over OPS’s winter break. Periodic background checks were not conducted by OPS, the lawsuit claims.

erin.duffy@owh.com, 402-444-1210

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Reporter - Education

Erin is an enterprise reporter for the World-Herald. Previously, Erin covered education. Follow her on Twitter @eduff88. Phone: 402-444-1210.

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