A woman raped by a middle school teacher in West Virginia some 12 years ago is now suing him, the school district, and the school’s former principal, recounting the abuse in graphic detail and alleging that officials failed in their duty to protect her – and likely others.
Last year, Ronald Paul Harris, 63, pleaded guilty to one count of count of sexual abuse by a person in a position of trust. He is currently serving a 10 to 20-year prison sentence on that conviction over the incidents at the Oak Glen Middle School, where the defendant was a history teacher, was in charge of the school’s broadcasting department, and served as the girls’ basketball coach.
The survivor, now 27, seeks unspecified monetary damages and attorney’s fees. Identified only by her initials, E.H. is suing her admitted abuser for assault and battery, sexual assault/sexual abuse, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Her parents are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They say they lost “filial consortium” because they “witnessed and experienced daily the effects of the trauma sustained by their young-teen daughter despite not knowing the source of the trauma until years later.”
According to the lawsuit filed in Hancock Circuit Court in late April, the Hancock County Board of Education, and the middle school’s then-assistant principal, David Smith, did or should have known about abuse – and a general culture of sexual predation that permeated Hancock County schools. Smith is now the Oak Glen High School principal.
Among the most egregious aspects of daily life for students was the poorly kept secret that Harris kept a “Top 10 List” of the most attractive female middle school students and that he had been caught masturbating on school grounds – at least twice – by school board members, a witness said, according to the lawsuit.
Additionally, the complaint says that a different male employee at the middle school created a sexually provocative nickname for E.H. when she was 13 years old – a year before the sexual abuse occurred and that another male employee used class time to discuss his sexual preferences with students, and that yet another male employee often made jokes about pregnant students carrying his child – and that he asked female students to sit on his lap during class.
“The Board knew or should have known of the overt, egregious, sexually charged culture that existed within Hancock County Schools,” the lawsuit obtained by the West Virginia Record reads. “Other Board employees contributed to this horrific culture/environment.”
The lawsuit accuses Smith and the board of negligent supervision, negligent retention, negligent training, and violating a state law requiring school personnel to alert police of suspected child abuse.
The lawsuit also alleges that all three defendants violated the West Virginia Human Rights Act.
“Part of what we want to know is who else could have prevented this,” one of the woman’s attorneys, Zachary Stewart, told The Record. “And there may be other victims or witnesses of Mr. Harris, so we are asking for the assistance of everyone to help bring justice to light.”
E.H. was being groomed in middle school, the lawsuit says, and Harris later arranged for her to help him grade papers and organize his classroom when she was a high school freshman.
That’s when the sexual abuse began.
“Harris discussed his desire to kiss and fondle E.H. and informed her that he would save money for an ‘elopement’ marriage when E.H. turned 18 years old,” the complaint says. “Harris would take E.H. into the storage closet of the media room, which was connected to his regular classroom by an interior door, and request that E.H. remove her shirt and proceed to remove his own shirt. Defendant Harris would remove E.H.’s bra and intensely hug her, and suck on her breasts. Defendant Harris would then masturbate in front of and on E.H. Defendant Harris put his hand in E.H.’s pants and underwear and molested her by touching and penetrating her vagina.”
Such “horrific sexual abuse” occurred at least 10 times, according to the complaint. All the while, the filing claims, Smith and the school district’s board were “acutely aware” that E.H. visited the school on Harris’ request and spent time alone with him in his classroom.
On one occasion, the lawsuit alleges, “Smith attempted to gain access to defendant Harris’ classroom when he was sexually abusing E.H., but when he found the door to be locked, he simply ceased trying and began walking away down the hall.”
As Smith walked away that time, “Harris abruptly emerged into the hallway with E.H. and nervously called for defendant Smith,” and the two men had a conversation, the lawsuit alleges.
“Harris was profusely sweating, visibly and audibly nervous and outwardly anxious, yet defendant Smith did not address either the locked door situation – while E.H. was clearly in defendant Harris’ classroom with him – or defendant Harris’ extremely odd, guilty behavior,” the filing says.
Law&Crime reached out to Smith and an attorney representing the school district for comment on this story, but no responses were forthcoming at publication.
“She’s a tough young woman, but certainly, this has shaped her entire life,” E.H.’s other attorney Mary Pat Statler told The Weirton Daily Times. “She went through a trauma no child should ever go through — she struggles daily, just fighting to overcome everything.”
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