Lawsuit says Chapel Hill schools took little action to help students facing sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse statistics in the United States

One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
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One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Three first-graders at a Chapel Hill elementary school were sexually abused on the playground, in the cafeteria and on the bus but school staff did little to help the boys and didn’t tell their guardians, therapists or police, according to a recent lawsuit.

“I was shocked and dismayed that so many people in an administrative position knew about the abuse and did little to respond. The lack of communication with caregivers and documentation is especially upsetting,” stated Talya Mazor, a former mental health clinician at Estes Hill Elementary, in an affidavit.

“Neither the 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 stated in the affidavit, a statement sworn and signed before a notary.

Mazor said concerns about students displaying signs of post-traumatic stress disorder led to one of the students disclosing to her that he and two other boys had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by older students, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of one of the students.

The three boys were sexually assaulted “in the cafeteria, bathrooms and hallways, at recess on the playground as well as on the bus,” Mazor said.

The lawsuit contends Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials failed to take protective action or share information about the incidents with the students’ guardians, therapists or law enforcement.

It names as defendants the CHCCS Board of Education, the boys’ teacher, principal and the school system’s coordinator of exceptional children services, claiming negligence and infliction of emotional distress.

Attorneys for the school system haven’t filed a response to the allegations beyond successfully asking for an extension of their reply deadline to June 19.

Jeff Nash, the school system’s spokesman, said it can’t comment on pending litigation.

The boys’ teacher at that time, Lucy Hayes, and the coordinator of exceptional school services at the time, Nancy Kueffer, couldn’t be reached for comment. A reporter left messages on phone numbers associated with their addresses on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Hayes retired from the school system in 2013, according to information provided by the system. Kueffer left the school system in 2016. She is listed on the state Department of Instruction’s website as a regional employee with the Integrated Academic and Behavior Systems division.

The boy’s principal Cheryl Carnahan, who declined to comment, retired in 2015 but works for the system on an interim basis, according to information provided by school system.

The family’s attorney, Robert H. Jessup, confirmed he was representing more than one child and intends to file another related lawsuit soon.

“We look forward to helping our clients understand what happened,” Jessup wrote in a statement. “Our lawsuit and the sworn affidavit speak for themselves.”

In an interview this week, Mazor said she stands by what she said in the affidavit. Mazor, who said she resigned from her position for unrelated reasons, is now in private practice.

Behavior education

Mazor was hired in April 2012 to serve as a mental health clinician at Estes Hill Elementary School in Chapel Hill, according to her February 2016 affidavit, which was included in the lawsuit . She worked with students in two “behavior education” classrooms: one with kindergarteners to second-graders and another with students in third to fifth grades.

The students in those classrooms, predominantly African American boys from low-income homes, had been referred to the program after interventions at their home school were unsuccessful, Mazor said in the affidavit.

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

In the spring of 2013, Mazor had built trust with one of the students and asked him if he had ever been touched inappropriately.

The student indicated that he and two other then-first-graders were the “primary victims of abuse,” by two other students in the older behavior educational class, Mazor said.

The abuse occurred during the 2009-10 school year, but it may have gone on longer, she said.

A second student confirmed the abuse. The third student had transferred to another school system by the time she started, Mazor said.

One of the first-grade students described the older students touching the three first-graders penises and buttocks and forcing them “to touch one another’s penises,” Mazor said in the affidavit.

After the report of sexual abuse, Mazor said she better understood the boy’s behavior, which included getting angry when other students or teachers tried to touch them and unraveling before they would get on the bus, where they said abuse had occurred.

“This resulted in constant disciplinary issues resulting in physical restraint, removal from learning opportunities, suspensions and continued isolation from their peers,” Mazor said.

‘Surprised and upset’

After Mazor learned about the abuse in the 2012-13 school year, she sought more information from school officials, she said.

A social worker reached the boys’ teacher at time of the abuse, and was relayed a message that it “had been handled,” Mazor said.

Mazor eventually spoke to the director of the school system’s human resources department and the student services coordinator.

“They told me they knew about the incidents and that I did not need to investigate any further because it has been resolved before my time,” she said.

The system administrators told Mazor that the parents has been informed by letter, the children had received assessments and counseling sessions and that the Orange County Rape Crisis Center had been called.

Mazor called the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, she said.

Center officials weren’t aware of any individualized services provided to the students, but verified that they did a puppet show about sexual abuse for both of the classrooms. Mazor said she also learned that monitors were placed on the boys’ school buses to prevent further abuse.

When Mazor shared the information with guardians of two of the boys about the abuse, they were “surprised and upset” and said they had never received any written or verbal information about the abuse.

Mazor sought a copy of the letter sent to the parents and received a general document that informed parents about the puppet show.

After Mazor shared the information with the mother of one of the children, she reported it to Chapel Hill police.

A Chapel Hill police report shows that a sexual battery was reported by Mazor May 13, 2013. Ran Northam, a Chapel Hill police spokesman, said an investigation was conducted and no arrests were made.

“The Chapel Hill Police Department seeks assistance from personnel trained in investigating juvenile cases when those cases are investigated,” Northam wrote in an email. “It’s also important to note that any time a juvenile is interviewed, the parent or guardian of that juvenile is present.”

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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.