The Berkeley County School District failed to protect students from sexual abuse that took place in a school office, a school cafeteria and a school gymnasium, according to four federal lawsuits filed by parents in the past 21/2 years.
At one school in particular, Goose Creek High, two men were spending time alone with female students in the winter of 2014-15, according to subsequent arrest warrants. One was Assistant Principal Paul Jette Herman. The other was mechatronics teacher Donald Wayne Blair.
That winter, students later told authorities, Blair was taking a 16-year-old girl into his office two to three times a week. The door clicked shut. Rumors swirled.
Blair told Principal Jimmy Huskey nothing was going on, according to a signed statement in his personnel file dated Jan. 8, 2015. Rather than hand the case over to police, according to the personnel file, the school placed an employee in charge of interviewing students about the rumors — a former Mount Pleasant police officer in a position of authority.
That man was Paul Herman.
His internal investigation did not lead to Blair’s arrest.
It was Herman that sheriff’s deputies arrested on Feb. 24, 2015, on a charge of sexual battery with a different 16-year-old girl in his own office. After the arrest, school officials tried to track down Herman’s interview notes from the Blair case, according to a handwritten note in Blair’s personnel file.
“Mr. Herman took statements from all parties,” the note reads. “After the Mr. Herman situation on 2-24-15, we could not find the statements.”
This year, the Berkeley County School District has settled two lawsuits brought by parents of sexual abuse victims.
It agreed to pay $200,000 from a state insurance fund before a lawsuit from the father of Herman’s victim could go to trial. It paid $75,000 to settle another lawsuit after a mother said a student sexually assaulted her daughter with special needs at Berkeley Middle School. The district currently faces two lawsuits from parents who say a boy sexually abused their daughters at Marrington Middle School of the Arts. Neighboring school districts have not faced as many lawsuits of this nature in recent years.
The Berkeley County district requires employees to go through sex-abuse prevention training. It is one of only five school districts in the state to be certified as a Partner in Prevention by the sex-abuse prevention group Darkness to Light.
“We’re going to work together on this, and we want our students to feel safe,” said Glenda Levine, the district’s chief human resource officer. “We want our parents to feel that their children are safe coming to their schools.”
But some parents have said the district’s precautions weren’t enough to protect their children.
‘Failures of judgment’
In the Darkness to Light training that all Berkeley County School District employees receive, one of the five key steps is to “minimize opportunity” — that is, to reduce the number of situations in which an adult can isolate a student one on one.
Erika Rowell, manager of educational programs for Darkness to Light, said she was surprised to learn the school district does not have a policy prohibiting employees from spending time alone with a student behind a closed door. In the sample code of conduct the group provides to all participant organizations, the first sentence states no staff member should be alone with a child where he or she “cannot be observed by others.”
“There are times when a child needs to be in one-on-one conversation,” Rowell said, “but that doesn’t need to be behind closed doors.”
Berkeley County School District officials say they encourage employees to avoid closed-door situations, but there is no rule against them. The neighboring Charleston County and Dorchester 2 districts do not have an open-door policy, either, according to their spokespersons.
Several Berkeley County School Board members did not reply to an email request for comment on sexual-abuse prevention two weeks ago. Board Chairman Jim Hayes said that the handling of the investigations was a “personnel matter” that did not involve the board.
“I’m sure policy is something we may have to look at down the road,” Hayes said.
Berkeley’s policies about sexual conduct by employees leave little to the imagination. Employees are not to leer at a student’s body; make sexual jokes; touch, grab or pinch a student; or do anything that would “give the appearance of impropriety.”
“In all the years I’ve worked in this position ... I have not heard a single person say, ‘I didn’t know that you couldn’t have sex with a student,’ ” Levine said.
But the problem was never a lack of policies, according to attorney Carl E. Pierce II, who represented the family of Herman’s victim. In his lawsuit, Pierce sought to build a case that Herman’s sexual interest in the student was “plainly visible” to Goose Creek High administrators, which the district denied. He wrote that one staff member had walked in on Herman engaging in “sexual conduct” with the student and that another had even joked about Herman’s behavior toward the student.
“I don’t see a systemic lack of policies there. I don’t see a lack of care for the children in an overall sense,” Pierce said. “I do see several horrible failures of judgment.”
The Post and Courier reached out to Herman’s lawyer for comment, but didn’t get a reply.
The two cases at Goose Creek High run parallel in some ways. Herman and Blair both isolated their victims by requesting them as assistants to do clerical work, according to witness statements collected by the sheriff’s office. But the cases diverged from there.
Two days after Herman’s arrest, on Feb. 26, 2015, a girl blurted out in a school courtyard that she had been having sex with Blair, according to a school resource officer’s report. Officers spoke with student witnesses at the time, but they dropped the case the next day after the girl denied the rumors.
On Aug. 1, 2016, Herman pleaded guilty to sexual battery with a student without aggravated force or coercion, and received a one-year prison sentence. The girl in Blair’s case broke her silence by filing a police report Aug. 10. Authorities arrested Blair Aug. 22 on charges of sexual battery with a student and third-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor. Seven student witnesses helped corroborate the girl’s account. Blair denied it, saying he took the girl into his office to help her with schoolwork.
Two days later, authorities found Blair’s body near the Cypress Gardens boat landing. A coroner declared his death a suicide.
The family of Blair’s victim has not sued the school district.
Two active lawsuits against the Berkeley County School District involve a student who allegedly abused female classmates at Marrington Middle.
In February 2013, a 12-year-old girl gave a written statement that a boy had been touching her private parts and forcing her to touch his for two weeks in the school cafeteria, according to internal school documents attached to a lawsuit.
“He has done this to other girls before and has never been found out until now,” she said at the time. In May that year, a girl told school officials the same boy was fondling himself and touching girls’ breasts.
The mother of the first alleged victim is suing the school district, as is a father who wrote that the same boy sexually assaulted his daughter in October 2013. In court filings, the district responded that it had “acted promptly and appropriately in response to the reports made” and handed the October complaint over to law enforcement.
A surprise expert witness in the case, former Charleston County School District Superintendent Nancy McGinley, gave an unsparing critique of the school’s case file. She said school staff had failed to conduct a “full and thorough” investigation, monitor the boy’s daily interactions, or keep him out of classes with girls he had shown an interest in. She also wrote that school officials failed to recommend the boy for evaluation or treatment. Instead, they repeatedly suspended him and eventually expelled him.
Meanwhile, the boy’s first victim from February said her grades suffered, according to a deposition the young girl gave to authorities.
She felt alienated from friends and even her mother, whom she used to tell everything. “I felt like I couldn’t feel anything anymore. Everything felt like just whatever, like my life was just whatever and I didn’t care,” she said.
In time, she got into counseling. She worked on her grades and her relationship with her mother. Both are better now. But she still feels the consequences of what a boy did to her in the sixth grade. In high school, she said she felt uncomfortable with basic intimacy — a hug or a kiss on the cheek could still set her off. “It’s like a recurring event in my mind,” she said.
The silver lining
One other lawsuit against the school district involved a girl at Berkeley Middle with a disability that lawyers said made her “highly social” and trusting of strangers.
According to the lawsuit, a male student sexually assaulted her when school officials left her unsupervised in the gym in early 2013. The district denied the claims, which included disability discrimination and gross negligence. The district settled the lawsuit in March.
“My client believed that shedding light on the school district’s actions through the lawsuit would bring awareness and change to ensure all students, and especially special-education students, are kept safe from sexual assaults,” said attorney Jackie Edgerton, who represented the girl’s mother.
Attorney Gregg Meyers, who represents the Marrington Middle plaintiffs, said he sees one silver lining in the recent spate of sex-abuse cases: With school guidance counselors talking to students as early as elementary school about inappropriate sexual behavior, victims are now coming forward while they are young. In the past, he said victims often waited until adulthood to open up about what happened — if they ever opened up at all.
“The good news is kids are telling and grown-ups are at least writing it down,” Meyers said. “We’ve got a little work to do on the grown-up side.”