School district faces sexual harassment lawsuit

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comJune 6, 2014 

Former Pritchardville Elementary principal Charles Johnson

STAFF PHOTO

Four teachers allege the Beaufort County School District knew of several sexual harassment allegations against an elementary school principal but took no action to address them.

A lawsuit filed in March says former Pritchardville Elementary School principal Charles Johnson "sexually harassed multiple women in his occupational setting" from 2011 through 2013. They are seeking actual and punitive damages, as well as the costs of the litigation.

The district was aware of Johnson's behavior but "undertook only a perfunctory investigation" and "took no immediate remedial or corrective action," according to the suit.

Johnson resigned Sept. 19 after being placed on administrative leave for eight days. At the time, superintendent Jeff Moss refused to explain why Johnson was placed on leave. Reached Friday, he would not say if sexual harassment claims were involved in Johnson's leave or his decision to resign.

Attempts Thursday and Friday to reach Johnson were unsuccessful.

Beaufort County Board of Education Chairman Bill Evans said in October that Moss presented to Johnson "some concerns, which I think (Moss) decided (Johnson) needed to resign."

"Ultimately the district did do something," said Beaufort attorney J. Olin McDougall, who is representing the women. "But it was a little too little, and a little too late."

William Early of Charleston-based Pierce, Herns, Sloan & Wilson also is representing the teachers.

The lawsuit lists the women as "Jane Doe" No. 1 through 4. McDougall would not say whether they are former or current teachers at Pritchardville or elsewhere in the district. They wish to stay anonymous to avoid humiliation, he said.

In a hearing Tuesday, the district asked that the suit be dismissed unless the women revealed their identities. However, Judge J. Ernest Kinard Jr. ruled that they could remain anonymous and the suit would move forward, McDougall said.

McDougall said the plaintiffs believe more victims -- "Jane Doe 5 through 100" -- could come forward and join the suit. Several former Pritchardville teachers contacted by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette declined to comment.

Attempts Friday to reach the district's lawyer, Andrew Lindemann of Columbia-based Davidson & Lindemann, were unsuccessful.

The suit says Johnson took advantage of his authority and "demanded that plaintiffs physically engage in inappropriate activities and other sexual behaviors." He also "engaged in voyeurism by means of peepholes, video and camera to view (the women) in restrooms," according to the suit.

The lawsuit says Johnson harassed not only school staff, but other district employees and job applicants.

The plaintiffs said multiple and unrelated allegations were made to the district office and that no thorough investigation was conducted nor any corrective action taken.

Former superintendent Valerie Truesdale, who retired in the fall of 2012, said she did not know of any such claims while she was head of the district. If the district had received complaints, Truesdale said, it would have taken them seriously and investigated immediately.

Jackie Rosswurm, the district's former head of human resources and acting superintendent after Truesdale's departure, agreed the district would have investigated such claims. Rosswurm would not say if any such complaints were made during her time with the district.

In October, the Packet and Gazette filed a freedom-of-information request for documentation of any oral or written complaints made about inappropriate behavior or inappropriate requests by Johnson while principal. The school district did not provide the requested materials, saying they fall under the exemption constituting an unreasonable invasion of privacy.

While Johnson and other former employees are no longer with the district, McDougall said, it is still responsible for their actions while they were employed. The suit is still in its discovery phase, he added.

"Because of the district's failure to step in and take corrective action, our clients suffered," McDougall said. "Unfortunately, in our legal system, the only recourse we have is to sue the school district for money."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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