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How Charleston school officials let alleged child molester continue working with students

  • 11 min to read
Support for Tyreik Gadsden (copy) (copy)

In this June 3, 2015, photo, then-Dunston Primary Principal Janice Malone, holding a photo of student Tyreik Gadsden, prays with parent advocate Marvin Gethers before a march in North Charleston to speak out against the gun violence that left Tyreik paralyzed. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

For years, Marvin Matthew Gethers upheld a reputation as a beloved colleague and a trusted mentor to struggling students in one of North Charleston's poorest elementary schools.

His superiors at the Charleston County School District praised him as someone who cared for children and made a difference in students' lives. They once named him an employee of the year and doled out prizes for his work as a parent advocate.

Charleston County School District employee caught with child pornography, authorities say (copy) (copy) (copy)

Marvin Gethers following his arrest in 2016. File/Cannon Detention Center/Provided

But while school leaders celebrated Gethers, a number of male students say he was molesting and physically abusing them behind closed doors at Dunston Elementary School on Remount Road.

Police arrested Gethers in 2016, initially accusing him of downloading child pornography on his school district laptop. Two Dunston students came forward the following day, and police subsequently charged Gethers with sexually assaulting them. 

Then, late last summer, it came to light that some district officials had been aware of the child pornography suspicions a full two years before Gethers’ arrest. The district not only allowed him to stay on the job while a police investigation into the pornography lingered, they promoted him to a higher-paying position while keeping the public in the dark.

The episode outraged parents, activists and school board members, leaving district officials with a simmering controversy as legal challenges continue to mount.

Six students have come forward alleging sexual abuse by Gethers, according to their attorneys. The district settled with one boy for $300,000 last year.

Questions continue to swirl about who knew what, and when. Several law enforcement agencies, a government body and a law firm have examined Gethers’ case, but all have come up short in terms of holding specific officials accountable.

The one person who could've probably answered all of these questions is gone — Gethers, 58, died of heart failure in 2017.

Most recently, the school district spent more than $16,000 to hire an attorney to probe its own handling of Gethers’ employment. Officials promised transparency, yet some have raised questions about a potential conflict of interest with the law firm selected to handle the investigation.

Parents of Gethers' accusers remain frustrated as they await answers. One woman who has filed a lawsuit against the district and police officials said her son complained of being abused by Gethers in 2014. She said she quickly notified district officials and police, but no one took her seriously.

“They ignored our cries for help,” she said. She is not being named because The Post and Courier does not typically identify victims of sexual assault or their family members. 

Protest at 75 Calhoun St. (copy)

A small group of activists, including Johnathan Thrower (second from left), called for outside investigations of the Charleston County School District on Sept. 18, 2018, after new details came to light about a 2014 child pornography case involving district employee Marvin Gethers. File/Paul Bowers/Staff

Signs of trouble

Gethers had been at Dunston for four years when allegations surfaced that he had viewed pornography on his laptop. But his connections to the district stretched back more than a decade.

Gethers was first hired in 2000 to work as a student concern specialist at Baptist Hill Middle-High School in Hollywood. The job, which involved advocating for children and resolving conflicts, didn't require a teaching certification.

He left the district in 2007 to earn more money, landing a job as a career coach for a private company, according to his employment records. But Gethers would eventually return to Charleston County schools three years later.

For $14.19 an hour, he began working again as a student concern specialist, this time helping high-risk children at Dunston and forwarding reports from students to Principal Janice Malone.

The mother now suing the district first noticed something wrong with her son when he was in first grade at Dunston in fall 2013. The 8-year-old had been acting out, throwing objects at his siblings and kicking walls at home. She notified the school and was told that he had also been misbehaving in class. The school said Gethers would work with the boy on a more frequent basis, according to the lawsuit filed in January.

Then her son started coming home crying. He complained that Gethers had been hitting and punching him.

The mother said she approached the school in early January 2014 with concerns that Gethers was physically abusing her son. At the time, the boy had not disclosed allegations of sexual assault.

She arranged a meeting with Malone, Gethers and a school resource officer. They suggested her son was lying, according to the lawsuit. 

"They made it seem like Mr. Gethers was a spectacular person and he never had an issue with anybody," the mother recently said. 

Two weeks after that meeting, a district IT technician came across sexually explicit file names during a virus scan on Gethers’ school laptop. Gethers had asked IT for help because his device wasn't working properly.

The IT employee confiscated the laptop and notified Malone.

Gethers admitted to Malone that he’d looked at pornography, but he claimed he had only viewed adult material at home. Malone sent him home and called her supervisor, Associate Superintendent James Winbush. 

A network security engineer in the IT department contacted the school district's legal counsel and the director of security.

The next day, a search of the laptop revealed a website showing pornographic videos of teenage boys. The school district's security director alerted a police lieutenant overseeing school resource officers. The case was forwarded to North Charleston detectives.

In a letter of apology for viewing pornography, Gethers wrote, "What started as a bitter way of dealing with my frustration of enduring the ending of a 25 year marriage may have very well caused the final chapter in my employment career in education." 

Gethers spent about 10 days on administrative leave. There was some talk at the time of firing him, according to emails, but he was allowed to return to work in mid-February 2014. 

Support for Tyreik Gadsden (copy)

Kindergarten teacher Narcisa Hinds and parent advocate Marvin Gathers lead a march for Tyreik Gadsden, a Dunston Elementary School student who was shot and paralyzed, on June 3, 2015. File/Staff

Delayed investigation

With Gethers back at Dunston, the boy continued to complain to his mother of physical abuse in February 2014.

His mother called police. The boy said Gethers had grabbed his neck and slapped the back of his head in the school office. A North Charleston officer wrote in an incident report dated Feb. 26, 2014, that he advised the mother to follow up with investigators and the school resource officer.

The mother said no one got back to her.

Her once-happy son "shut down.” A few days later, the boy, terrified of going to school, threatened to kill himself and Gethers. His mother sought psychiatric help.

For reasons that are unclear, more than a month elapsed between the time the porn was first discovered and when the school district's IT department turned over Gethers' laptop to North Charleston police in March 2014.

A North Charleston investigator took the laptop to a computer forensics examiner at the Charleston County Sheriff's Office, which performs forensic downloads for local agencies that don't have the capability to conduct such examinations in-house.

Gethers' laptop sat on the waiting list while a series of homicides took precedence, according to the police report.

Speaking generally, sheriff’s Capt. Roger Antonio, an agency spokesman, said the forensic examiner prioritizes cases involving an "immediate threat to the community" and instances when the results are critical for the case to move forward.

Gethers, meanwhile, enjoyed a promotion. Nine months after the porn was discovered, the district made him a parent advocate at Dunston for $55,434 a year. The accuser's lawsuit alleges no one asked police about the status of the criminal investigation before renewing Gethers' contract. 

At a Charleston RiverDogs game celebrating educator awards in April 2015, then-Interim Superintendent Michael Bobby introduced Gethers as the district's classified professional of the year. People cheered as Gethers, dressed in a striped polo shirt and a black ball cap, accepted his award of an iPad, grant money and use of a car.

"Mr. Gethers does some unbelievable things for kids and with kids," Bobby told the crowd. "He makes a difference in lives every day."

In that time, the boy who said he was being physically abused left Dunston. His new school in another county didn't feel far enough away, so his family eventually moved out of state.

In January 2016 — 22 months after investigators received Gethers' laptop — police learned the forensic exam had uncovered more than 9,700 pornographic photos and videos, including images of minors. 

Gethers was arrested for sexual exploitation of a minor. He lost his job.

Two boys then came forward accusing Gethers of sexual abuse. They told police that Gethers would pull them from class or corner them in the hallways and coax them into his office or the bathroom. Once alone, they said he would touch them inappropriately and take nude photos of them. Their accusations prompted police to charge Gethers with two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor, a felony that carries up to 15 years in prison.

Gethers died in July 2017, before the case could go to trial.

Still, more young boys would come forward with similar accusations. 

With the allegations public, some former co-workers apparently remained loyal to Gethers. A few penned tributes in an online obituary guestbook.

One entry signed by "Janice and Calvin" of North Charleston said, in part, "My heart aches for my colleague and dear friend! He will be missed greatly by the Dunston Primary School family where he remains highly respected!" The accuser's lawsuit alleges that Malone, Dunston's former principal, authored the post. She is now the principal of Sanders-Clyde Elementary in downtown Charleston.

Charleston area news outlets covered the initial details of Gethers' arrest. But the case resurfaced with a fury last summer when a report by WCSC-TV revealed that the district knew of the porn in 2014 but kept Gethers on the job.

The district-commissioned review found "no indication" that the superintendent or the school board at the time were aware of the allegations against Gethers. Winbush, the associate superintendent, had the authority to make disciplinary actions without involving the superintendent. It was Winbush who allowed Gethers to return to work in 2014.

Both Winbush and Malone have said they knew Gethers had allegedly viewed adult pornography, but they've maintained they did not learn about the suspicions of child porn until his arrest two years later.  

Yet there would have been no reason to notify authorities if the district's IT staff had uncovered adult pornography, a North Charleston police report noted. Such activity would have been a district policy violation but not illegal.

The mother whose son left Dunston said she was visiting from out of state in the fall when a news report about Gethers’ case caught her attention. Until then, she hadn’t known about the accusations of sexual abuse and child porn possession.

She asked her son if Gethers had ever touched him inappropriately. The boy, now 12, disclosed that Gethers had molested him in first grade. He'd been too embarrassed to talk about it before.

“He said that’s why he wanted to kill Mr. Gethers,” the mother told The Post and Courier. “The biggest thing that does not sit right with me is knowing that this man was under investigation and was allowed to work at this school.”

Transparency questioned

After facing scrutiny from the community, school district administrators in September announced they had hired an independent investigator to pinpoint what went wrong in the district's handling of Gethers' case. 

Officials said the outside review would "attempt to respond to lingering questions." Charleston County schools Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait, who arrived at the district in 2015, promised transparency. 

"There is no reason for us to want to sweep anything under the rug," she said at a board meeting in September. "We will share all information that can be shared publicly."

But past incidents left some dubious. 

In 2016, Charleston County School of the Arts honors algebra teacher Patrick Ratigan was abruptly escorted from campus during an investigation, but district officials wouldn't discuss the nature of their probe. After four months of sidestepping the state's open records law, the district released documents revealing that Ratigan had resigned amid allegations that he'd had an inappropriate relationship with a female student. 

To review the Gethers' case, the district hired Wilbur Johnson, managing partner of the Charleston-based firm Young Clement Rivers.

Attorneys for several of Gethers' accusers are questioning the wisdom and the fairness of that choice. The same firm is representing the district in pending legal action regarding Gethers' alleged crimes and defended the district against defamation allegations made by one of the key figures in the Gethers case. 

A lawyer with Young Clement Rivers represented the district last year when settling with one of Gethers' accusers for $300,000, records show. Other attorneys with the firm are representing the district in a lawsuit that attorney Mark Peper filed in January on behalf of the boy who later left Dunston. Attorney Jack Sinclaire said Young Clement Rivers is also representing the district against his client's claim.

"It seems to me like a very obvious conflict of interest," said Sinclaire, whose client alleged sexual abuse by Gethers and is in negotiations with the district.

Charleston County School Board member Kevin Hollinshead criticized the external review process when the administration hired Johnson without a board vote, arguing then that the firm was too close to the district.

When told that Young Clement Rivers is representing the district in civil action brought by the accusers, Hollinshead said the independence of the external review is eroded.

"It breaks down community trust," he said. "It's not independent if you use the same firm to defend it."

Johnson said recently he didn't see how his role could have constituted a conflict of interest.

"The notion that there is a conflict escapes me," he said. "My role was to determine as best I could the facts and circumstances that surrounded the events that took place and to inform the board as best as I could ... and that’s what I tried to do."

The district said it selected Johnson for his expertise and integrity. His biography on the firm's website states he primarily practices in employment and labor law and has worked as an assistant attorney general.

Johnson's review cost the district $16,386.

Similar cases

About two months after the district announced the investigation, Johnson in November sent a memorandum of his findings to the school board. The district didn't release the document to the public until multiple media outlets submitted Freedom of Information Act requests in mid-January.

Johnson wrote that his review was incomplete because some people with firsthand knowledge of Gethers' situation were inaccessible. Some key decision-makers at the time no longer work for the district, and some chose not to speak with Johnson. Among them was Winbush, the associate superintendent.

Before he left the district in 2016, Winbush oversaw the Innovation Zone Learning Community, a subset of high-poverty schools that included Dunston.

He and Gethers knew each other from Baptist Hill, where Winbush had been the principal. Gethers once wrote in a letter to Winbush that he considered him a "confidant" and a "friend." In January 2014, Winbush loaned Gethers $600.

Winbush's attorney, Nancy Bloodgood, denies the two knew each other socially.

James Winbush (copy) (copy)

James Winbush, a former associate superintendent at Charleston County School District, addresses students at Baptist Hill High School in 2010. File/Staff

Bloodgood has advised her client not to speak with the media.

She provided a copy of a deposition from 2017 that Winbush gave in an unrelated defamation lawsuit he filed against the district — which resulted in a $100,000 settlement. His statements largely focused on a student activity fund that Winbush had set up, but a few short tangents shed some light on Gethers' case.

In one statement during the deposition, Winbush suggested that the district had dealt with other pornography cases similar to Gethers'. Winbush recalled a conversation with Wilbert Suggs, who held various positions in employee relations at the district. When talking about whether to fire Gethers in 2014, Suggs told Winbush they wanted to "stay consistent."

"I told him that I had three other schools that had a guy — at this point we knew nothing about child pornography,” Winbush said in the deposition. 

Bloodgood said Winbush was referring to other district employees who had accessed pornography on a district laptop — but only adult pornography.

Changes made

In his memorandum to the school board, Johnson concluded that those involved in decisions about Gethers' employment "managed the situation differently than a similar situation would currently be handled."

Bill Briggman, chief human resources officer, agreed the district has made important changes since 2014. Human Resources now oversees the employee relations department, where before it did not.

“I would say that under my watch now and with the superintendent, if it was pornography on a district device, that employee would be terminated,” Briggman said.

The school board, which sets policy for the district, has made some changes, as well.

In June 2017, the board updated its policy governing employee conduct with students to specifically prohibit sexual relationships with students of any age and to include prohibitions against interacting with students on social media sites. 

school district

The Charleston County School District administration headquarters at 75 Calhoun St. File/Staff

In the course of revising the policy, the board also deleted a section that listed examples of situations that might give rise to charges of unethical conduct. Those examples included “consistently working with an individual student behind closed doors.”

The old policy could have raised red flags about Gethers or any employee who regularly spent time alone with a student in an office or classroom. Board Chairman the Rev. Eric Mack and Kate Darby, who was serving as chair in 2017, did not respond to a request for comment on the policy change.

Amid district leaders' promises of change, the mother whose 12-year-old son’s lawsuit is pending wants to know why an employee under investigation for child pornography was allowed unchecked access to young children.

Some nights, her son has stayed awake crying in her arms. She tries to comfort him by telling him he's safe now, but the mother said that's a painful assurance to make when she feels that so many people failed him. 

"It’s hard when I feel like I didn’t protect him, my husband didn’t protect him, the school system didn’t protect him," she said. "Nobody protected him."

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Reach Angie Jackson at 843-937-5705. Follow her on Twitter at @angiejackson23Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Angie Jackson covers crime and breaking news for The Post and Courier. She previously covered the same beat for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive.com in Michigan. When she’s not reporting, Angie enjoys teaching yoga and exploring the outdoors.