Lawsuit claiming sexual abuse in Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools moves to federal court

A lawsuit accusing Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools of doing little to help three children being sexually abused by their classmates has moved to federal court.

The lawsuit, filed in May in state court, accuses school officials of negligence in the case of three students at Estes Hills Elementary School at the time.

It originally included an affidavit from Talya Mazor, hired to be Estes Hills mental health clinician in 2012, in which she said: “Neither victims of the abuse nor the perpetrators — children and likely victims of sexual abuse themselves — were given the opportunity to receive the appropriate treatment due to the way it was handled by school and district administration.”

Mazor worked with students in two behavior education classrooms, where students were referred after unsuccessful interventions at their home schools. One classroom had kindergarten to second-graders and the other had third- to fifth-graders.

“The children who were isolated in these classrooms were considered the highest needs children” in the district, Mazor said.

Mazor began to suspect that two of her students had post-traumatic stress disorder related to sexual abuse and, in the spring of 2013, asked one of them “whether he had ever been touched inappropriately.” The student told her that he and two other students had been “repeatedly sexually abused” by two older students from around 2009-2011.

According to the affidavit, the boys were abused on the bus, playground, in the cafeteria, bathrooms and hallways by students from the older class. The abuse included touching the students’ penises and buttocks and forcing them “to touch one another’s penises,” Mazor said.

The lawsuit was filed by Robby Jessup, the attorney for the parent of one of the children. It names as defendants the CHCCS Board of Education, the boys’ teacher, principal, assistant principal and the school system’s coordinator of exceptional children services, claiming negligence and infliction of emotional distress.

The News & Observer contacted Jeff Nash, the school system’s spokesperson, who said the district was unaware of the federal filing and would need to contact its attorney before commenting.

“Deliberately Indifferent”

The federal lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, includes a new affidavit from Lucy Hayes, who taught the behavior education class until 2013.

Hayes states that in or around the spring semester of the 2010-2011 school year, the two classes were combined into one and she noticed something was wrong but couldn’t get children to focus long enough to get information. She said she remembered hearing the phrase “hot dog” at times.

Later that semester, she said, one child was interacting violently with children and adults, so she took him to the timeout room to de-escalate the situation. After placing the child in a “therapeutic hold” he began to cry and told Hayes that kids had been “showing their private parts on the bus.”

Hayes took the child to an administrator who told Hayes to go handle her bus duties and “she would finish talking to [the child] and arrange for him to be taken home,” according to the affidavit.

Hayes later felt unsure about how it was handled and arranged a meeting with another teacher, the principal and guidance counselor. At the meeting, the counselor suggested that the Orange County Rape Crisis Center do a “Safe Touch” presentation and the principal told them “the situation ‘was being handled’ and she instructed us to ‘stay out of it,” according to the affidavit.

“I felt that the administration was trying to sweep what was occurring under the rug,” Hayes stated.

Hayes stated that the administration removed who she believed to be the main perpetrator from the bus and placed a monitor on the bus, but she said that to her knowledge the children’s parents were never informed of the alleged abuse and school officials never took any substantive measures to address it.

In Mazor’s affidavit, she said she told the guardians of the two of the boys and they were “surprised and upset” and that they had never been informed of the abuse.

At the end of Hayes’ statement, she said that based upon her knowledge, “Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools was deliberately indifferent to actual knowledge of inappropriate and unwanted sexual conduct toward and among elementary school students.”

Title IX

The new filing in federal court includes claims that were not made in the original state lawsuit.

These claims include a violation of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funding. The claim states that the “school board and its officials and employees persisted in its actions and inaction even after having actual knowledge of harm suffered...”

The lawsuit also claims violations of rights secured by the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. It states that the students had the right to “personal security and bodily integrity” and the school system was unconstitutional by failing to investigate the claims and “failing to adequately train and supervise” their employees.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools will be notified of the federal complaint soon and will have 20 days to respond to the claims, Jessup said.

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun

Trent Brown covers the Town of Cary and other odds and ends. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2019 and is a Collegiate Network fellow.