Edgecombe schools face lawsuit


By Amelia Harper
Staff Writer

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A field trip incident allegedly involving sex, drugs and alcohol last May has led to the filing of a federal lawsuit this month against the Edgecombe County Board of Education and nine employees.

The 37-page lawsuit alleges the school system violated Title IX and other constitutional rights and the N.C. Whistleblower Act; and alleges negligence, infliction of emotional distress, defamation and libel related to the field-trip incident, the investigation of the incident, the disciplinary decisions of the school district and perceived intimidation of the plaintiffs for filing appeals.

The plaintiffs, a student and her mother, seek at least $10,000 for each of 12 counts, totaling a minimum plea for $120,000 in redress from the Edgecombe County school board, Superintendent John Farrelly, Assistant Superintendent and Title IX Coordinator Marc Whichard, SouthWest Edgecombe Principal Craig Harris, Assistant Principal Billy Strother, a school counselor and four Edgecombe County Public Schools teachers who attended the field trip in the role of chaperones.

The plaintiffs in the case include a student at SouthWest Edgecombe High School identified only as L.B. because she is a minor and her mother, K.B. who is identified as an elementary school teacher in the Edgecombe County Public Schools. Though the mother is identified in the lawsuit, her name is being withheld to protect the identity of the student.

The lawsuit states that the mother and daughter filed the complaint against the defendants for their “discriminatory, retaliatory and defamatory conduct against the plaintiffs following a completely foreseeable and preventable incident that occurred on a school-sponsored field trip.”

The alleged incident occurred on May 12 during a four-day field trip to Washington, D.C., involving 36 members of the SouthWest Edgecombe High School History Club. In the suit, the student contends she was sexually assaulted in a hotel room by three male students who had been drinking and smoking marijuana. The plaintiff said she pleaded with the boys to stop, but they continued. One of the boys allegedly recorded the incident on video and later shared it on Snapchat.

L.B. claims school officials accused her of sexual harassment and suspended her for 10 days. The school also took away several honors, including the chance to serve as junior marshal, attend the governor’s school and her membership in several elite clubs and organizations, she claims. The suit also alleges that the male participants in the sexual incident were never disciplined for their involvement.

Deborah Stagner, attorney for Edgecombe County Public Schools, said the school district can neither confirm nor deny the reported acts of discipline, citing federal and state privacy laws.

Stagner also said the lawsuit should not affect Edgecombe County Public School’s Title IX federal funding.

“The lawsuit has been filed by a private citizen,” Stagner said. “The board is not aware of any investigation or any allegation of wrongdoing by the U.S. Department of Education or any other federal agency responsible for enforcing Title IX. We have no reason to believe that this lawsuit will have any impact on federal funding for ECPS.”

In addition to filing for monetary damages, the lawsuit requests the expungement of L.B.’s disciplinary record, the reinstatement of the title of junior marshal and reinstatement to all the societies she claims were affected by her treatment by the school district. The plaintiffs are requesting a jury trial in federal court.

Stagner said the lawsuit only gives one side of the story and the school district is fully prepared to fight the suit in court.