UPDATE: Burch Middle School seeking new principal amid sexual ab - WTRF 7 News Sports Weather - Wheeling Steubenville

UPDATE: Burch Middle School seeking new principal amid sexual abuse, assault allegations

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UPDATE, 1:39 p.m., May 9, 2014:

It appears Burch Middle School is looking for a new principal, but there has been no comment from school officials.

The school's principal, Melissa Webb, answered her home phone at about 1:30 p.m. Friday, May 9, but repeatedly said she had no comment on the situation and would not confirm why she was home on a weekday afternoon.

The county lists the position as open on its vacancy site, but the page was last updated May 1. News of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's injunction was released May 8.
A person who answered the phone May 9 at the school said the county board of education would have to comment on the question of whether or not Webb had resigned. A person who answered the phone at the county board of education said the county superintendent and assistant superintendent both were out of the office for the day and she could not comment.

Original story, 1:46 p.m., May 8, 2014:

Mingo County school officials systematically covered up allegations of sexual abuses and assaults at Burch Middle School by two boys whose relatives are allegedly board employees, according to an injunction filed in Mingo County Circuit Court Thursday, May 8 by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

The complaint alleges the victims, female classmates of the two boys, were “subjected to repeated incidents of sexual abuse and/or sexual assault by two fellow male students, and then threatened with discipline and/or retaliated against by members of the Burch Middle School administration when each pursued punishment for the offenders.”

The conduct in question includes “non-consensual fondling, groping and molestation, oftentimes forcible in nature” and occurring on school grounds, school buses and field trips, the complaint alleges.

The action seeks an injunction against administrators and employees of Burch Middle School, the Mingo County Board of Education and its superintendent, two juvenile males and the juveniles’ parents.

Morrisey said the filing is part of an investigation into alleged sexual abuse and assaults at Burch Middle undertaken by his office in conjunction with the West Virginia State Police and West Virginia Human Rights Commission. He's seeking an injunction against administrators and employees at the school, the Board of Education and its superintendent, two juvenile boys and their parents.

Defendants specifically named in the 32-page complaint include: Burch Middle School Principal Melissa Webb, Burch Middle School Vice Principal Deanna Maynard, Guidance Counselor Hester Keatley, teacher and athletic coach Melvin Cunningham, Mingo County Schools Superintendent Randy Keatley, the Mingo County Board of Education, a student listed as Juvenile 1, the mother and father of Juvenile 1, a student listed as Juvenile 2 and the mother and father of Juvenile 2.

Click HERE to read the full complaint.

A separate action also has been filed by the West Virginia Human Rights Commission in relation to the same claims.

Lt. Michael Baylous with the West Virginia State Police said the investigation is "open," and that he could not give specifics.

"The investigation of these crimes are a priority to us and we all need to take it serious and when there's an allegation this has occurred, it's very important this allegation be investigated thoroughly," Baylous said. "That's what we're going to do it. we're going to investigate it thoroughly and hopefully get to the bottom. Everyone should be alert and report these crimes as soon as they're made aware of them. 

"There are some professions where they have an obligation to do that. It even extends to medical personnel as well. Not only do you have a moral obligation but some occupations have a legal obligation as well. We all have a moral obligation as well."

This is not the first time administrators and educators in Mingo County have dealt with sex abuse allegations. 
  • In 2012, James Keatley, a math teacher at Matewan Middle, was charged with three counts of third-degree sexual abuse and one count of battery. James Keatley is the son of Hester Keatley, a guidance counselor at Burch Middle School who is named in Morrisey's injunction. 
  • In 2013, Jennifer Parsons, a teacher at Matewan K-8, turned herself into authorities after she was accused of maintaining a relationship with a 13-year-old female student.
The complaint alleges school officials failed to report or properly investigate the allegations, pointing out the alleged perpetrators “have avoided criminal investigation,prosecution or meaningful punishment due to the actions and conduct of the administrators and teachers at Birch Middle School and the Mingo County Board of Education.”

It also suggested one of the alleged perpetrators is a relative of an employee of the Board of Education “who actively participated in the purported 'investigation,'” according to the complaint.

The complaint suggests building administrators actively downplayed the seriousness of the allegations to the parents of the girls, failed to return calls or supply them with copies of their child's initial statement to school personnel.

At a meeting with one of the girls and her parents, the complaint alleges Cunningham pointed out there were no witnesses so the girl could not prove she had been assaulted and “threatened disciplinary action …. should she continue to complain without witnesses,” even though the father of one of the boys who was at the meeting allegedly had told the group in their presence his son had admitted his involvement.

“Principal Hunter never explained the necessity for witnesses even though she was present for the admission and statement of (the boy's) father,” the complaint stated. “Principal Hunter did, however, tell (the girl's) parents that she knew what had happened and if (they) would trust her and not call law enforcement she would 'take care of it.'”

The girl's parents were left with the impression that the principal would contact authorities, Morrisey said, adding it wasn't until March 2014 when they received a redacted copy of the file that they learned police had not been notified.

Another girl claims one of the boys would restrain her and the other would grope her breasts, genitalia and buttocks. “Some of the intrusion and groping was above the clothing and some ... was underneath the clothing,” the complaint said, adding that on one occasion the girl alleges she was “forcibly penetrated” by one of the boys on a field trip to Charleston.

The complaint alleges school and board personnel failed to report the allegations to the proper authorities, failed to conduct a meaningful investigation, engaged in retaliation and intimidation, including false claims of student infractions by the girls, and obstructing a police investigation after troopers investigating the allegations were denied access to students at school “because it disrupted the learning environment.”

The West Virginia Board of Education took control in Mingo County Schools in 1998 because of poor academic scores and a lack of leadership, according to the website for the WVBOE. The county regained control in 2002, only to lose it again in 2005 when an audit revealed similar deficiencies. 

A statement provided by legal counsel for the West Virginia Department of Education on behalf of the Mingo County Board of Education reads as follows:

"We are aware of the complaint that has been filed in the Circuit Court of Mingo County. Once the county has been formally served, it will respond accordingly. Mingo County Schools takes student safety seriously and remains committed to providing a secure environment for all students."

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said May 8 he "could neither confirm nor deny such an investigation," but added that "those sorts of cases are generally outside our jurisdiction and squarely within state jurisdiction."